Swordfish (2001)

D: Dominic Sena
S: John Travolta, Hugh Jackman

I'm sorry, but you can't start an $80 million Hollywood action film with a self-referential, quasi-experimental scene in which the central character expounds at length on the lack of realism in Hollywood movies and then go on to have buses dangling from helicopters, hackers breaking into Government security systems under threat of fellatio and gunshot wound to the head, female federal agents wandering about in their underwear wearing wires in the most unlikely of places, and a scene where three grown men roll down a steep dirt hillside for twenty or thirty seconds without receiving a bump or scratch. No. You can't do it. Well you can, but you can't get away with it. No one is going to take you seriously. It is borderline pretentious to try to pretend you are doing something different when you are not, and the audience is not so dumb as not to notice that you're laughing all the way.

Ace hacker Hugh Jackman (X-Men) is hired by mysterious megalomaniac John Travolta (Battlefield Earth) to create a worm virus which will allow him to access secret US Government bank accounts for nefarious purposes of his own. Jackman is recruited by sexy Halle Berry (X-Men), whose only function seems to be to wear or not to wear various levels of revealing clothing as befits the moment. Meanwhile cybercrime expert Don Cheadle (Traffic) is on the case while hit man Vinny Jones (Gone in 60 Seconds) goes around wreaking havoc with potential witnesses.

Writer Skip Woods has delivered a preposterous hodgepodge of hi-octane cliches here and set them up with an opening which tries to argue that "Hollywood makes shit." Fair enough. If you set out to prove your argument by illustration, mission accomplished. Swordfish is an hilariously unlikely set of contrivances and action scenes which mostly provokes laughter. It certainly isn't exciting, or thrilling, or suspenseful. Even its few moments of tension in the opening scenes are dissipated by the gee-whiz! pyrotechnics used to make the obligatory big explosion as ear-shattering and eye-popping as possible. Hollywood doesn't necessarily always make shit, but it is very good at making easily digestible produce. This film follows the rules for doing so and delivers another in a long line of technically proficient bits of nonsense that will provide entertainment if you aren't really looking for anything too demanding, but which is so chock-full of holes that you could drive another movie through it and never notice.

The problem is that even on its own terms, the film is pretty lame. The dramatic sub-plot involving Jackman's daughter is hilariously convenient, with a filthy rich ex-wife lolling in luxury as our poor hero lives in a trailer in the middle of nowhere (meaning he will do anything for the money to get his child back). This seems to be enough to motivate him through increasingly outrageous changes in circumstance when Travolta begins to reveal more and more of what he wants him to do. There just isn't enough in the relationship between father and daughter to make it anything more than a textbook narrative catalyst. Even Schwarzenegger managed to be more convincing doing this stichk in Commando. Adding a whisper of romance with Berry doesn't make it any more believable, because it is obvious that the screenwriter is only interested in getting to the good stuff (the action), and the rest is obligatory Syd Field Screenwriting 101.

Director Dominic Sena managed to get away with this sort of silliness in Gone in 60 Seconds by simply keeping his foot on the accelerator. He tries the same trick again here, and does succeed in keeping the film moving for the brief hour and a half or so that it runs. The action scenes are a hoot, with plenty of slo-mo and big noises as befits the genre. The plot holes mount up though, and it becomes progressively more inane and ill-motivated as it goes, meaning that he winds up taking you there out of sheer stubbornness rather than any commitment to what the film supposedly has to say. It all has the feeling of a big shaggy-dog in-joke at the expense of the viewer, and there are plenty of condescending laughs to be had if you haven't paid too much to get to see it, but this is a film which shows nothing but contempt for itself and its audience and should be approached accordingly. You have to think that a film which derives its title from an old Marx Brothers routine can't be all bad, but believe me, this is a dumb movie trading on dumbness which affects an air of smug postmodern irony which doesn't make it any less moronic. So Hollywood makes shit, eh? QED.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.