Not Another Terrible Movie

Natural born killers: the heroes (?) of 'S.W.A.T.'
Columbia Pictures

It has become increasingly hard to separate one dilapidated, hallucinatory sector of our civic culture from another. A sober analysis of the effect of Arnold Schwarzenegger's womanizing on his chances at elected office blurs into a stock market-style dissection of the impact of Ben Affleck's extracurricular "heterolingus" on the grosses of Gigli. The sight of Colin and Alma Powell humbly doing duty in the doghouse in Crawford, Texas, dissolves into that of Justin and Britney reuniting for a hybrid talk show/clothing line/teen cosmetics empire. Donald Rumsfeld's comparison of Iraq in ruins with Revolutionary War-era America is just a channel-surf away from Demi and Ashton grinding on the steps of the California Governor's Mansion, their faces morphing into jackals' masks. Everything in our public experience--popular culture, politics, community ethics, spiritual feeling--collapses into a sump pit of hollow, self-advertising celebrity, which in turn subjugates itself to the marketing machine: the churning digestive tract that transforms shit into shiny products, a bankrupt civilization into Greater Shareholder Value.

If this sounds preachy, forgive me. I found myself this week, in the midst of California's crazy recall, talking to a group of art-school students about their place in the "post-art world," and fighting a powerful urge to flee the United States. So I can't just write about S.W.A.T. as another bad movie, though it most certainly is--because the times are too dire not to call this depraved cultural artifact by its proper name. Is it the first law-and-order salvo of Gray Davis's death-twitch reelection campaign? Or is it a deeply personal testimony from Michelle Rodriguez about her journey from sneering butch to longhaired, motherly femme? Is it a Fortune story about Sony Pictures' brave rebound following a near-death experience with Ben and J. Lo? Or is it a thinly veiled salute to our antiterrorist men and women in uniform, written by two notorious tough-guy screenwriters trembling under a security blanket?

Many years ago, a film like S.W.A.T. would have earned an honorable place in the American-movie ecosystem. As directed by, say, cop-movie maestro Don Siegel, such a film would have provided crackerjack entertainment while messing jazzily with form and even exploring a few ideas--among them the contradictions of the standard cop hero (played best for Siegel by Clint Eastwood). But that was then--back when a filmmaker working in a semi-disreputable genre could sneak a few interesting shades of gray past the front-office censors. Today, even when an attempt at reform is made--as TV veteran-turned-film director Clark Johnson seems to have tried with S.W.A.T.--it simply can't elude the corporate board of review that signs off on $150 million movies.

And so you have the schizoid experience of this film, which takes pains to shoot its "gritty" training sequences in the chapped, early morning color of a faded '70s show while also including the following: the asshole police chief who demotes our hero to flunky status for disobeying orders and saving a hostage's life; the despicably handsome Eurotrash killer who snickers in the S.W.A.T. members' faces; the crusty but lovable commander who gives the plucky, maverick protagonist a second chance (because being a cop is a job, but S.W.A.T. is a calling!); and the six-seater plane that lands, on the villain's behalf, on a bridge in downtown Los Angeles. (Does no one at the studio realize that passenger planes in America can be shot down by fighter jets within three minutes' time?)

I wish I could dismiss S.W.A.T. with a few sneering quips and send it on its way, but it seems to me to be something far more pernicious than that. It's a colloquy of old jokes that don't provoke laughter, twists that no longer twist, hoary character clichés that we're meant to treat with a straight face. The movie represents what almost all studio filmmaking has become: a hollow shell of an enterprise that feigns to entertain people, but succeeds in entertaining no one. Branding-enslaved audiences go in the faint hope of recreating some nostalgic experience (fill in the popcorn movie you saw three or four times long ago), and come out feeling gypped and depressed. Maybe next week's box-office winner will be the charm--or the following week's. And of course it never is--because everything has been dumbed down and depersonalized to the point where this entire summer's movies seem like interminable episodes of a single film. (Was it Keira Knightley who played Lucy Liu's wimpy lover and not Sam Rockwell? And why was Jada Pinkett Smith hanging out at that caveman rave instead of kissing the Fresh Prince at home?)

It feels obvious to liken the nutrient-free, celebrity-trash culture of American movies to our nauseatingly debased political sphere--yet hideously alike they are. And it's no fun to be a critic screeching out the same old rag: The '70s were great, the '80s ruined everything, the good times are over. But the bloated exhaustion of a S.W.A.T.--or one of many other movies you could pick at random out of today's paper--suggests that film art needs to take new forms. It's disheartening to see Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone clamoring to sit at the same table with the purveyors of this worthless junk, and even more disheartening to think that the moviemakers of tomorrow are drinking deep from this toxic well. Not only new forms, but new means of distribution and promotion are needed to keep the most versatile and intoxicating art form that humans have ever produced from being stripmined into oblivion.

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