Screenplay : Skip Woods
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : John Travolta (Gabriel Shear), Hugh Jackman (Stanley Jobson), Halle Berry (Ginger), Don Cheadle (Agent A.D. Roberts), Vinnie Jones (Marco), Camryn Grimes (Holly Jobson)
The four college-age guys who sat in front of me in the theater watching Swordfish loved it--or at least certain parts of it. I could tell which parts they loved most because they would rock back and forth in their chairs, pumping their fists, barely suppressing a yelp of exultation.
Director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) certainly gave them something to yelp about right off the bat. Opening the movie with a semi-ironic conversation in which a character played by John Travolta laments the sad outpouring of bad movies from Hollywood every year and how Dog Day Afternoon (1975) would have been better had Al Pacino's character starting shooting hostages right off the bat, Sena pulls the camera back to reveal that Travolta is right in the middle of a Los Angeles hostage situation that makes Pacino's day in New York look like stroll through Central Park. We're not entirely sure how it's come to this, but there are at least a dozen hostages wearing explosive vests filled with ball bearings, one of which Travolta detonates when a SWAT team members tries to save the girl who's wearing it, which leads to a breathtakingly violent 360-degree slow-motion pan around the city street as fire and ball bearings rip through cars, buildings, and human bodies. It's the movie's best shot--outrageous, sadistic, and utterly mind-boggling--and it happens in the first five minutes. The guys in front of me were loving it.
If you're into that kind of technically proficient large-scale mayhem, Swordfish is definitely right up your alley. It thumbs its nose at the relative restraint of the spate of PG-13 action movies that have dominated the theaters for several summers, instead wallowing happily in blood, bad language , and a few bare breasts. Pretending to be a cyberculture thriller about hackers and computer crime, Swordfish is really little more than a testosterone-driven shoot-em-up that relishes scenes of carnal damage much more than the thrill of breaking into a secure network. The camera is so restless and the pace of the story so relentless in moving from one action set-piece to another that you get the feeling Sena would rather just blow up all the computers on-screen and get it over with.
Travolta plays Gabriel Shear, a mysterious, uberwealthy criminal mastermind with an odd streak of patriotism that he uses to justify all that he does. The plan this time around is to steal $9 billion out of a government bank (the money is the profits earned by a bunch of dummy corporations set up by the government in the 1980s that have been earning interest ever since). Shear needs the best hacker in the world in get into the system, so he taps Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman). Jobson was Wired magazine's man of the year in 1996, but, since being busted and serving time, he has spent the last few years holed up in a trailer next to an oil field in Midland, Texas.
Jobson is ostensibly the good guy in the movie, since he perpetrates "victimless crimes." In fact, the screenplay even throws in a line about how he was arrested for tampering with an FBI surveillance program used to read people's e-mails, so technically he was just defending our constitutional rights. Jobson's good character is further enhanced by a sentimental subplot involving his inability to see his young daughter, Holly (Camryn Grimes), who is forced to live with her mother, now a strung-out, alcoholic porn actress.
Jobson ends up working for Gabriel, but at every turn he learns that the stakes are higher and higher. Of course, screenwriter Skip Woods (Thursday) never makes an ounce of effort to give those in the audience who are not in the know about the intricacies of cybercrime and hacking any idea of what's actually going on. Terms like "worm," "firewall," and "128-bit encryption" are thrown around with the kind of reckless abandon that lets you know they're there for the sole purpose of informing us that the characters on-screen know exactly they mean and most of us have, at best, a vague idea. The plot is so far-fetched and wildly lurching that it is almost wholly reliant on our never fully understanding what's happening, otherwise we might spot the plot holes better.
But, in the end, Swordfish is not about cyberculture, computer hacking, or the difference between 128- and 512-bit encryption. It's about blowing stuff up and shooting people, and we get plenty of that. Sena throws in a delirious car chase through the streets of Los Angeles in which Gabriel turns a couple of pursuing vehicles into Swiss cheese with a machine gun in each hand. In the ludicrous climax, Gabriel and company escape the feds by having their bus picked up by a helicopter and flown over the L.A. skyline. That not being exciting enough, the bus has to crash through at least one billboard, causing two cables to snap and momentarily turning the movie into a pseudo-disaster picture, with people clutching at the seats and trying not to fall out the back of the bus.
Swordfish is viscerally exciting, and both Travolta and Jackman put in good performances. Travolta, especially, does well as the brilliant and mischievously diabolical Gabriel, whose system of logic and ethics is like a foreign language that is fully comprehensible only to him. Some of the other actors get a bit lost, though, including Halle Berry as the movie's requisite sex object who may or may not be an undercover DEA officer, and Don Cheadle, as the dogged investigator pursuing the case. But, all of that is largely beside the point, as the movie got the kind of review from the four guys sitting in front of me that is music to the ears of producers: As they stood up to leave, they said in near-unison: "Man, we gotta see that again."
©2001 James Kendrick