S.W.A.T. (2019) review

142640.57599544_1000X1000The latest in the ‘Glorified recruiting video’ subgenre of Chinese cinema (see the first Wolf Warrior, The Warriors or Sky Hunter, and many others), Ding Sheng’s S.W.A.T. follows the Blue Sword Commandos, an elite SWAT team, as they train arduously and go up against a ruthless drug trafficker (Robert Knepper) and his team of mercenaries. That’s about it for the plot: built like a banal network TV show, the film alternates between training sequences (in a hangar, in a plane, on the shooting yard), skirmishes (in a metro station, atop a skyscraper), and scenes of evil Gweilos going about their business, until a drawn-out action finale on an island. Subtlety is absent, and the usual racial paradigm of these Chinese propaganda actioners applies more than ever: Chinese are good, Africans are funny, Caucasians are evil.

Like any good recruiting video, S.W.A.T. focuses almost exclusively on the sexier aspects of duty, not all based on reality: camaraderie, banter, adrenaline rushes, six-packs, long showers, beautiful women, no mortality… These Chinese elite forces seem to live for the thrill of toplessness, showing off their chiseled physiques much more often than comfortable, or needed: they even do so for a paintball tactical exercise. But the cast of relative unknowns – most of them bland, impossible to tell apart, and destined to remain unknown – does nothing to make sparks fly: the banter is strikingly insipid and the macho posturing is cringeworthy. Endless blow-harding and dick-measuring among musclebound cardboard cutouts is nobody’s idea of good entertainment.

As the primary villain, good old Robert Knepper (yes, there’s a Prison Break reference in the film, of course) is the film’s only trace of charisma: doing his best Al Pacino impression, he gleefully personifies the epitomy of evil for a Chinese propaganda film: he’s made a lethal drug just for Chinese people! Much worse: he underestimated the Chinese police! Shockingly, not once does he use the word “Chinaman”. A secondary villain is fleshed out in incongruous ways: drug use has rendered him incontinent, so he wears a diaper, which he defiantly throws to the winds during the island-set finale.

Damningly, Ding Sheng never seems to choose between realism (or at least verisimilitude) and outrageousness: some scenes seem to aim for documentary accuracy in the depiction of tactical combat, while others, like skyscraper rappeling or a William Tell-inspired sniper exercise, strain credulity. When it comes to the action, he has here traded his usual handheld, visceral style for something flashier: a lot of ‘first person shooter’ angles, and tracking shots in alternating slow mo and fast mo. Yet the geography is always muddled in the film’s many shootouts; scenes of hand-to-hand combat fare much better, often exciting and brutal. And there are interesting touches: Ding Sheng’s cinematographer of choice, Ding Yu, drenches key scenes in neon greens and reds, and composer Lao Zai incorporates Mongolian throat-singing into his score (though there’s a blatant rip-off of John Powell’s music for The Bourne Ultimatum in the final reel). Not only does Ding cameo as usual, he also features his own Saving Mr Wu on a background screen in a scene. A fleeting reminder that he’s capable of so much better than this.

Long Story Short: A thinly-plotted, glorified recruiting video for the Chinese elite forces, S.W.A.T. has fleeting moments of solid entertainment, but never chooses between realism and ridiculousness, and is populated with bland unknowns acting out tired macho posturing. **

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2 Comments

  1. …And I’m going to go out on a limb and say this review is more entertaining than the movie itself, and is therefore the only good thing about it.
    Your sacrifice in watching and reviewing this is appreciated!

    Reply
    • Haha thanks! Well at least this review isn’t trying to make you enlist in the Chinese forces, so that’s that.

      Reply

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