Swordfish (2001)

The first scene in Swordfish contains a monologue given by John Travolta in which Hollywood is criticized for making lackluster and unbelievable movies. We apparently can’t believe in the movies because they have to end happily, and because the villains never really seem like they want to get away with it. He ponders what would have happened if Al Pacino would have started killing hostages right away in Dog Day Afternoon. And then, in our first scene, a hostage is killed after trying to flee despite having a bomb strapped to her.

It’s funny how unrealistic the movie becomes later on. Not because its villain doesn’t seem driven enough, but because of the increasingly elaborate methods it uses in either its action scenes or attempts to misguide the viewer. If the film is going to criticize the film industry, it should at least avoid falling into the same pitfalls that it’s using as a basis of criticism, shouldn’t it? It’s still a fun action-caper, but I think if it didn’t point out some of its shortfalls right off the bat, introducing them to us in an attempt to be funny, it might have been more effective.

We begin with that scene, and then cut back to a few days previous, where we meet Stanley (Hugh Jackman) at a makeshift driving range at his trailer. He’s approached by a woman, Ginger (Halle Berry), and is told that he’s needed by a secretive man who will pay $100,000 just for a meeting. Stanely was a computer hacker who was recently released from prison after being caught, and it comes as no surprise when the mysterious man, Gabriel (John Travolta), tells him that computer hacking is required. Stanley will be given $10 million if he’s able to pull it off, enough to hire a lawyer who will be able to win him custody of his daughter.

Swordfish seems like it’s going to be a “one last job” type of film for a while, but it doesn’t really follow that type of storyline. Instead, Stanley becomes more like an undercover avatar for the audience, so that we can find out what’s really behind Gabriel’s plan. He’s only worried about doing the job and getting the money, although he does start to become more of a hero as the film progresses and he learns more and more. There’s also an FBI agent played by Don Cheadle who pops in from time to time, although Stanley isn’t working with him.

A lot of time is spent watching Hugh Jackman sit at a computer, typing away. It’s not thrilling at all, which is why I suppose the filmmakers chose to feature more explosions and a flying bus near the film’s conclusion. Admittedly, the action scenes are just fine once they actually happen, although some of them, like a chase scene involving Gabriel and Stanley, seem hammered in just to keep the audience from getting bored from the technical jargon and “hacking” scenes.

Swordfish is a very silly film. The tone is light, which is good, because if it tried to be taken seriously it would be laughed right off the screen. It knows that we don’t want to see a serious film about computer hacking, as that would involve a couple of people sitting in front of a computer screen for a few hours. Instead, it gives us a bit of the hacking — still too much, mind you — and builds a heist movie around it. It’s somewhat successful at doing so, largely because it’s goofy and embraces that.

I don’t understand why the filmmakers would strive for an R rating, though, as there’s nothing here that needed to be R-rated. There’s a topless shot (which made Halle Berry a reported $500,000 richer), and there’s a bit of swearing here and there, but this is PG-13 stuff that has been ramped up to attain the higher rating. Teenagers would be the ones who would enjoy this type of film more than adults, I would wager, although they’re prohibited from seeing it thanks to a silly decision in the filmmaking process.

This is also a film that tries too hard to trick the audience, both in its slightly non-linear storytelling method — we begin in medias res, flashback for an hour, and then pick up right where we left off — and the few twists at the end. Sure, the film doesn’t actually cheat, as everything holds up, but why? What is accomplished by doing this? You make your opening monologue come true, I guess, and make it a foreshadowing device, but that’s about it. It’s clever, but ultimately serves little purpose other than to be confusing and convoluted.

I always enjoy John Travolta as a villain. Here he is calculating and sharp-witted, although he’s not as menacing as you might expect. Once his reasoning for stealing from a bank is revealed, you’ll probably be shaking your head rather than appreciating his work. And once the twist comes to unsettle that, you won’t be surprised but you might be confused. “Of course that couldn’t have really been why he was doing this,” you’ll say before never thinking about Swordfish again because it’s ultimately unremarkable in every way.

I did enjoy Swordfish, although it’s a very familiar watch. You know most of the plot already, and apart from a couple of hammered-in action scenes and a couple of confusing twists at the end, it doesn’t offer anything new. Travolta is fun as the villain, and I like Jackman as the protagonist, but the whole thing feels bland and a little dull, even if there is some fun to be had. And it’s short, which is always a plus, clocking in at only just under 100 minutes. I had fun, and it easily could have been worse, but it’s not necessarily worth your time.

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