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Swordfish   C+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Dominic Sena
Writer: Skip Woods
Cast: John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Vinnie Jones, Sam Shepard.

Review by Rob Vaux

So this is what the moral sewer looks like. Not as bad as they said it would be. Sure, it's got that whiff of repugnance to it, and that fetishistic interest in extreme violence. It treats women like objects and shamelessly caters to adolescent fantasies of power and control. It even includes exploitative shots of children in peril, shamelessly keyed to play on our sympathies. But we'll survive the experience. We may even have a little fun while we're at it. It's easy to dislike what Swordfish is selling: a slick, amoral thriller with a lot of gratuitous violence and flashy gimmicks. But it makes a compelling pitch, and while you may hate yourself in the morning, it has an earthy appeal that's hard to deny.

Most summer movies simplify their plots to the point where they practically vanish. Swordfish takes the opposite route and achieves nearly the same effect. It presents a story of Byzantine complexity, but it does so with such confidence and bravado that you really never notice. The fulcrum is Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), formerly the greatest hacker in the world, but now a burned-out ex-con. He's living out of a trailer when he meets Gabriel Shear (John Travolta in full-bore Evil Genius mode), who promises to make all of Jobson's problems disappear. Shear wants a pile of money from a big bank, and needs a complex hacker-type computer program to get it. If Jobson can create it, while simultaneously holding off the feds, he pockets 10 million dollars and can snatch his beloved daughter away from his porn-queen ex-wife.

That much is clear. It's the whys and the wherefores that cause foreheads to wrinkle. Travolta's motives are as distracting as his silly beard; one moment he's a crime king, the next a super-spy, the next a fanatical terrorist. Halle Berry, playing the nominal love interest, flip-flops as well, and the plot seems hell-bent on matching their shifting loyalties with each step. Jackman, at least, has a stable character, providing a nice audience surrogate to cling to in the confusion.

As complicated as it is, the plot never gets in the way of the set pieces, which is always the point of films like this. The absurdity of its premise is neatly matched by the professionalism of its execution, lending plenty of excitement to its numerous action scenes. Swordfish opens in the middle of the robbery (giving Travolta a nice Tarantino-style monologue before blowing things up), then flashes back to the scheme's inception. Director Dominic Sena has shaken himself out of the lethargy that gripped his last film (the dreadful Gone in 60 Seconds), and throws a huge amount of energy into the chases, gunfights, and obligatory mayhem. The bank heist shows more than the usual panache, and there's plenty of impressive pseudo-hacking to distract us when the explosions die down.

In the end, however, it's not the complexities or the action that undoes Swordfish, but the sheen of distaste that coats the entire affair. All of the characters are smug and self-serving, shameless in their callousness. The film's treatment of women leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and the climactic action scene involves a gimmick which I found more disturbing than thrilling. Though it never affected me while I was watching it, the film's overall tone didn't sit well once it was done.

Having said that, I confess a certain perverse admiration for Swordfish's brazen brand of exploitation. In an era of increasing artistic censorship, when filmmakers cravenly court PG-13 ratings in an effort to appear family friendly, it's refreshing to see Sena and Co. proudly raise their middle finger to the prevailing political winds -- to show us the exploding bodies and dare us to do something about it. If nothing else, they should be praised for sticking to their guns: a strange sort of courage that rarely shows its face.

That doesn't make Swordfish any less sleazy, however. Or place its pleasures anywhere but in the "guilty" category.

Review published 06.11.2001.

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