Swordfish (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"You know what the problem with Hollywood is - they make shit."

It is with that statement - not profound, but undeniably true - that Swordfish opens. And, while this movie isn't going to convince anyone that the major studios have suddenly turned over a new leaf and are producing better fare, it's certainly a lot more entertaining that most of the painfully long and joyless cinematic "events" that have thus far marked the dismal Summer of 2001. In its zeal to cram every potential blockbuster with as many special effects as possible, Hollywood has forgotten that summer movies should be made for the appreciation of the consumer, not to give filmmakers an arena in which to show off. Swordfish at least remembers that this sort of film is supposed to be fun.

Like Die Hard and Speed before it, Swordfish is escapist entertainment that requires a significant level of suspended disbelief. While this motion picture lacks the strong scripts and easy-to-identify-with central characters of its antecedents (the aforementioned summer action flicks), its deficiencies in those areas don't detract significantly from its watchability. The screenplay, credited to Skip Woods, is silly and often preposterous, but it's not dumb. It pokes fun at itself on a fairly constant basis, although never straying so far over the line that it morphs into self-parody. Director Dominic Sena (Gone In 60 Seconds) puts things into testosterone-and-adrenaline overdrive, delivering a healthy portion of chases leavened with high-tech gadgetry and a helping of raunchy under-the-table sex and high-profile nudity.

The story is presented in a convoluted manner, starting in the middle, flashing back for about an hour, then returning to the present. Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) is the film's charismatic villain, a man so wealthy and powerful that "he lives a life where nothing is beyond him." In this case, he's planning a $9.5 billion electronic bank robbery, the proceeds of which he can use to finance anti-terrorist terrorist activities. His surprisingly small crew includes the sexy Ginger (Halle Berry), who harbors a secret, and the stoic Marco (Vinnie Jones). Now, he wants to add ex-super hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman) to his payroll. At first, Stanley isn't interested - he just got out of prison, and doesn't want to go back. Then Gabriel dangles an irresistible lure in front of him - the chance of regaining custody of his beloved daughter, Holly (Camryn Grimes), who is currently living with her porn-star mother. So Stanley agrees, and this places him once again into conflict with FBI agent Roberts (Don Cheadle), the man who previously busted him. Now, with his team assembled, Gabriel embarks upon the heist, using violent, amoral, pyrotechnic techniques and fooling his pursuers by pulling Houdini-like deceptions out of his bag of tricks.

In Speed, a bus took flight for a moment. In Swordfish, it's airborne for a lot longer. That's one of many interesting action sequences contained in this surprisingly spare movie (it's only a little over 90 minutes long). There's also a long, tumbling foot race down an almost-vertical cliff-side, and a car chase that manages not to be boring. In between, Sena keeps things moving with snappy dialogue and sexy women. (Obviously, a guy flick.) There's also plenty of mayhem (including one digitally-rendered explosion that is shown in slow-motion as the camera pans through 360 degrees around it) and a high body count. The movie contains a few surprises, although, if you pay careful attention to Travolta's opening monologue about Dog Day Afternoon, you'll get a hint about where everything is going.

As the bad guy, Travolta is fine, although he lacks the panache brought to a similar role by Alan Rickman in Die Hard. In fact, Travolta was more menacing in both Broken Arrow and Face/Off. And, with age, he's starting to get a little pudgy around the middle and fat in the face. Hugh Jackman, who is becoming increasingly high-profile after starring as Wolverine in X-Men, makes an adequate protagonist, although his Stanley Jobson is no John McClane (his motives - a "regular" guy saving his family - are the same). Vinnie Jones, the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels soccer player-turned-actor, says very little (as usual), letting his demeanor do all the talking. Don Cheadle plays the sympathetic cop.

Then there's Halle Berry, who isn't required to do much more than to assume a number of sexy poses and appear briefly topless. The latter act has earned her, and the film, a certain element of notoriety. To entice her to bare her breasts, the filmmakers offered an obscene amount of money (sources differ on the exact amount, but it was somewhere between $500,000 to $1,000,000 as an add-on to her base salary for the nudity), which she accepted. And, while she admittedly has very nice breasts, that seems like an awful lot of money to pay her to expose them.

By using computer hacking as a plot element, Swordfish attempts to be high-tech. There are some neat computer graphics and the dialogue occasionally sounds convincing (although those in the know will catch some laughable errors), but that's all window dressing for the caper action. The movie is loud, flashy, and violent, and certain viewers will probably offended by the casual manner in which some of the deaths occur. But, for those on the lookout for this sort of motion picture, that's irrelevant. Swordfish isn't art, but it's not shit, either.

Swordfish (United States, 2001)

Director: Dominic Sena
Cast: John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Vinnie Jones, Camryn Grimes, Sam Shepard, Zach Grenier
Screenplay: Skip Woods
Cinematography: Paul Cameron
Music: Christopher Young
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2001-06-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1