Swordfish (2001)

At the onset, Swordfish seems to have a lot to offer. The cast is experienced and entertaining, including John Travolta, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Don Cheadle, and Vinnie Jones. And the opening sequence is very, very cool. After this scene, however, aside from a few exciting action scenes before the end, Swordfish has little to offer and is one of the more brainless crime capers I’ve seen.

The film opens with Travolta monologuing about Hollywood films. He complains about the realism presented in Dog Day Afternoon, which brings the issue of realism to the forefront of the viewer’s mind. That was a pretty miscalculated step, because from plot holes to outlandish action, this film is far less realistic than the Lumet masterpiece. But more on that later. The monologue is entertaining and Tarantino-esque, which is meant to be a compliment. We then move from intriguing dialogue to flat out kick ass action.

You see, Travolta is a mastermind criminal who is in the process of robbing a bank. He has made his hostages “the world’s biggest claymores” by packing them full of explosives and ball-bearings. One of these unlucky hostages happens to exit the safety range and is detonated, resulting in what is easily the movie’s best instance. The explosion is slowed down as director Dominic Sena offers us a 360-degree view of the destruction. Such a stellar start excited me for the rest of the film, but that excitement was ill-founded.

After this sequence, the film moves back in time four days to explain how it got there. There’s not really any point to having this scene out of order, except for, I expect, to make the film have a strong opening. I don’t see how its placement adds anything to the story. Regardless, the story begins with Halle Berry femme fatale mode recruiting ex-hacker Hugh Jackman for Travolta’s scheme.

Travolta is explained as a super-genius, ultra-cool, playboy criminal who is one of the most dangerous spies in the world. I can see that he really wants to be this person, but he didn’t really convince me of it. Maybe it was his goofy facial hair, but I never got the impression that Travolta was truly a man to be afraid of.

Halle Berry was less impressive. Her character is mostly unnecessary and her role includes what is easily the most gratuitous topless shot in the history of legitimate cinema. I’ve heard that Berry received $500,000 for the two very short shots of her breasts. That so much money was spent on unnecessary nudity instead of story development or something else that could have enhanced the story’s quality speaks volumes about the film.

Hugh Jackman is the only lead cast member who delivers a satisfying performance, but his character has a tired subplot of trying to get back in touch with his daughter. He lost custody of her when he was arrested for hacking. To make the audience sympathize with Jackman, it’s said that he was hacking a government program that spied on emails, which is a little forced but apparently not too unrealistic (there was actually a “Carnivore” program that the government implemented in 1997). However, because this film doesn’t trust its audience members to make their own conclusions, they also make his ex-wife an alcoholic married to a pornography king. In the process of creating this sympathetic hero, however, writer Skip Woods just makes an unrealistic problem: Would Jackman really have a hard time convincing the court that his daughter was being raised in an inappropriate setting?

That’s not the only aspect of the script that left me sighing in annoyance. Cheadle, the agent attempting to capture Travolta, was conveniently Jackman’s arresting officer. Another irritation was the fact that in the opening scene, Cheadle is informed that the hostages are in danger if they are moved, but when the threat presents itself, Cheadle just yells over and over for those involved to stop without ever relaying the severity of the situation. That’s just lazy writing and really makes Cheadle look like an inadequate cop, totally not capable of capturing the supposed mastermind that is Travolta.

It may sound like nitpicking, but having such unmotivated characters and thoughtless actions can really detract from a story. There are other signs of generic action tropes – cars explode with ease and Travolta’s able to stand in a fast-moving car shooting at people accurately and never falling off balance. An admittedly exciting sequence with a helicopter and a bus near the end is only the final unbelievable action sequence of the film. Worst of all, there’s a stand-out awful hacking sequence with Jackman typing away at the computer. Most hacking scenes are bad, but this one may take the cake.

The film ends with Sena treating his audiences like infants. He shows flashbacks to scenes that are already fresh in the viewer’s mind and overexplains the not-really-clever twist. It’s like he’s standing there pointing at it with both hands yelling “SEE? SEE WHAT I DID THERE?” This attitude toward the viewer, one of intellectual disrespect, is present throughout the entire movie.

Though there are a few neat instances (a long tumble down a hill, an assassination through a two-way mirror), the film never comes close to being as clever as it thinks it is. While it’s certainly entertaining, there are much more intelligent and equally entertaining bank robbery films out there. I’d recommend Spike Lee’s Inside Man over Swordish. Or better yet, take a cue from Travolta’s monologue and check out Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. The attitude toward hostages might not be realistic, but every other aspect of that film blows Swordfish, a bland and uninspired thriller, out of the water.

Final rating: 4.5/10

–James A. Janisse

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