A conversation with anyone involved in ”S.W.A.T.” usually begins like this: Duh-nuh-nuh! Duh-nuh-nuh! Duh-nuh-nuh! Duh-nuh-nuh! Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh! Which, if you’re not fluent in trumpet flourish, is roughly the theme song to the 1970s TV series by which this film is inspired. ”We sing it all the time,” says Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Hondo, leader of a ragtag Special Weapons and Tactics unit that includes Colin Farrell and LL Cool J. ”At the end of every shot, we all break out into it.”
Produced by PlayStation-generation action guru Neal H. Moritz (”XXX”), ”S.W.A.T.” has for years been a nostalgic brand name in search of a movie. Directors and producers came and went, including Oliver Stone and F. Gary Gray (”A Man Apart,” ”The Italian Job”). Ultimately, Columbia Pictures deputized an up-and-coming rookie to work the beat: Clark Johnson, a cop-show acting veteran (”Homicide: Life on the Street”) and hotshot small-screen director (”The Shield”). ”The challenge was to make an action movie where you give a f— about the people in it,” says Johnson, who worked with a S.W.A.T.-like group of scribes to flesh out the core plot — in which the leather-clad, adrenaline-jazzed heroes guard a captured drug lord who has offered $100 million to anyone who can free him — with character-driven back stories.
After sending his actors to S.W.A.T. school (where they learned weapons training, tactical formation drills, even S.W.A.T. history), Johnson started rolling on his $70 million feature debut last October in and around Los Angeles. His penchant for multiple takes with various cameras (crane, Steadicam, handheld) left him not only with a staggering amount of footage but also with a group of actors occasionally frustrated by their director’s exuberance. ”As he goes along, he’ll learn there are certain things you don’t need to do sometimes,” says Jackson. ”I was constantly saying to him, ‘We’re just shooting extra hidden features for the DVD, right? Because we got the shot.” He’ll learn.”