(On DVD, June 2011) At a time where the video rental business is crumbling, the Direct-to-Video market is undergoing a curious rehabilitation, even when it comes to cheap action movies. Helped along with polyvalent digital cameras and cheaper post-production processes, DTV films now look better than ever, and manage to sport scripts, actors and direction that are well above the mediocrity we’ve gotten used to in movies that never played in theaters. S.W.A.T.: Firefight looks like a perfect example of the form: Sequel-in-name-only to a better-known theatrical action film solely for marketing purposes (there’s practically no story link to the original), it’s a reasonably entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. Part of the appeal is due to square-jawed Gabriel Macht in the lead role, as a Los Angeles SWAT leader sent to Detroit in order to train the local team. Refreshingly, the first half of the film adopts a convincingly realistic attitude in portraying a competent SWAT team with minimal dysfunction: S.W.A.T.: Firefight is never as interesting as when it’s showing off the team training, bonding and working together in showcase sequences. The choice to set the film in the ruins of Detroit is intriguing. Shannon Kane makes a good impression as a tough new recruit. Unfortunately, the second half of the film gets farther away from the SWAT rationale the longer it focuses on another improbably all-powerful antagonist who takes a personal dislike to the hero. It’s not as it Robert Patrick isn’t good, but that the film becomes a lot more predictable once the plot is sketched, and far less interesting as a result. (It also ends a bit too quickly.) At least the film moves with energy; director Benny Boom uses his limited budget effectively, even though touches like a gun fastened to a camera give an unpleasant video-game jolt out of the film’s experience. While the picture quality can’t escape a certain video softness, S.W.A.T.: Firefight looks good, goes by pleasantly, scores a few good scenes and exceeds the low expectation associated with a DTV film.
(On DVD, July 2009) There are many ways to be disappointed by Frank Miller’s The Spirit. The most esoteric one is by comparison to Will Eisner’s classic comic strips (or even Dwayne Cooke’s wonderful revival): The off-beat medium-specific tone of the original is a tough assignment for adaptation at best, but it becomes a mishmash in Miller’s hands, who seems more interested in ripping off his own Sin City than to deliver a coherent film. But you don’t have to be familiar with Eisner’s form experiments to think that this is a poor film: The Spirit veers from high camp to pitch-dark noir without much grace, and not even an astonishing gallery of lovely actresses is enough to redeem the result. Samuel L. Jackson does well as a high-spirited villain, but it’s a shame that Gabriel Macht doesn’t have more to do as the square-jawed hero. Visually, it’s a Sin City sort-of-sequel, although the quality of the images is much higher than what comes out of the speakers: The dialogue is over-the-top to a degree that seems stiff and self-conscious rather than amusingly arch. For a mash-up of crime and superhero fiction, there aren’t that many set-pieces worth remembering and the only one that sticks in mind has no choice than to resort to full-blown Nazi imagery. Little of it makes sense, and so the biggest disappointment of The Spirit is to think of what a much better film it could have been in other hands.