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Hondo Civic: Samuel L. Jackson plays S.W.A.T. commander Hondo Harrelson in the clichéd 'S.W.A.T.'

'S.W.A.T.' Teem

Crime writer David Corbett takes on the Cowboy Cop, the Slimy Supervisor and other annoying police movie clichés

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

'Hey, I went to see your movie last night," says author David Corbett, with a hint of comic derision--perhaps even a bit of accusation--in his voice.

The movie he's referring to is S.W.A.T., the new action film starring Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell as kick-ass cops on a Special Weapons and Tactics team in Los Angeles. At my suggestion, Corbett saw the underwhelming shoot-'em-up in his hometown of Vallejo, Calif., but I haven't caught up to him till today, ultimately locating him on his cell phone as he drives from Phoenix to Tucson, Ariz., for a series of book events.

After describing the cactus and rocks and 18-wheelers that pass for scenery on his long drive, Corbett offers his succinct summary.

"I think S.W.A.T. was mainly intended as a recruitment film for the L.A.P.D.," he says, "I think 18-year-olds with overstoked hormones and not a fuckin' clue what they want to do with their lives are going to see this and go, 'Oh, I can do that!' Of course, when they realize that getting on S.W.A.T. is about as easy as going through Navy SEAL training, they'll be singing a different song."

A former private investigator and one-time probate lawyer, Corbett now makes his living writing crime novels. Good ones. His first, The Devil's Redhead (2002) won instant acclaim for its wit and stunning emotional style. His latest, Done for a Dime, is even better. It's a fast-paced yarn about a murdered bluesman, a bummed-out cop and a horn-playing prime-suspect with Daddy issues, told with plausible plotting, richly imagined characters, a few nice surprises and some extremely believable dialogue.

All of which are elements entirely lacking from S.W.A.T.

"Nobody speaks in dialogue in this movie," Corbett says. "They all talk in slogans. The only cop who looked and talked like a real police officer was the potbellied Mormon guy in the gun cage, constantly sneaking fast food and soda pop, begging the guys not to tell his wife. That's your average cop. Everybody else in the movie was a cartoon. I was actually embarrassed for Samuel Jackson."

"Maybe this movie should have been titled C.L.I.C.H.E," I remark.

"Or just plain B.A.D.," Corbett replies. "The characters were so far off the mark. Cops are fascinating people, real cops are. They are really interesting, with great human stories to tell, but in this movie nobody ever did or said anything that made them really interesting. Except the fast food guy."

In the film, the Bad Guy--a French drug dealer (Oliver Martinez) who has offered $100 million to anyone who can bust him out of jail--has a moment where he verbally berates the SWAT team, accusing them of wanting to be cowboys in the Wild West.

"That's another cliché," I suggest. "The Cowboy Cop. But it's a cliché that a lot of people accept as true, that a lot of cops are trigger-happy predators, more dangerous to the public as they are to people committing crimes."

"Most cops aren"t like that," Corbett insists. "When you consider the number of cop-related shootings that actually go down, with cops shooting innocent or unarmed people--or even armed people--the number is so slim it's actually almost bizarre. Cops realize that, first of all, if you fire your gun there's so much fuckin' paperwork you really don't want to fire your gun unless you have to."

Murchison, the seasoned cop from Corbett"s latest book, muses at one point that you have to think you're invincible to be a cop on the street--that's the only way you get the job done. I ask Corbett if he believes that's true.

"Well, you can't back down from anybody when you're a cop," he says. "One of the few interesting scenes in S.W.A.T., and the only one where I think Colin Farrell played a cop's attitude perfectly, is when they're in that bar and he sees his old partner, and that guy starts gettin' in his face, and he's just so laid-back about it, as if he's more amused than threatened. That's how a cop would probably act, because you never back down. Most cops believe that if you show an inch of vulnerability, they'll eat you alive on the streets."

"Writing a cop character must be hard," I remark.

"Damn right. I'll never do it again," Corbett says. "Never. It's too hard to avoid the clichés. There are only so many ways this stuff can happen in a book or a movie. As hard as I tired to make something fresh, I still think I ended up using stuff that's been done to death."

"So ... maybe S.W.A.T. deserves a break?" I ask.

"Naaaaah," Corbett responds. "There are clichéd cop movies, and there are bad cliché cop movies, and this one is bad, bad, bad. Even cliche cop movies can maintain a certain level of drama. And this sure as hell wasn't drama."

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From the August 20-27, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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