Swordfish (2001) Movie Review

Swordfish is an action film that is not half as clever as it think it is. Like all movies made post-Sixth Sense, Swordfish has a twist ending that is supposed to leave the audience shaking their heads and going, “Wow, how did they do that?” Of course the actual reaction is probably more along the lines of, “Wow, that was pretty dumb.”

Swordfish stars Hugh Jackman (X-Men) as Stanley, a computer hacker in his ’30s who has the body of a NFL superstar and the grizzled and handsome face of a movie star. (He doesn’t look like he spends nearly enough time behind a computer, natch.) Stanley has recently been released from prison for breaking into U.S. Government computers, and the FBI, led by Don Cheadle’s Special Agent, is watching him closely.

Cheadle and his team are also chasing another group led by a former counter-terrorist agent named Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) who has gone rogue and is determined to steal billions from a slush fund held by his former employers in order to fight terrorism his way — without rules or borders, the way the terrorists do it. Shear needs Stanley’s hacking skills to get at the money and sends his best agent, the hot-to-trot Ginger (Halle Berry), to entice Stanley into joining. Stanley does, but only because he needs the money to get custody of his daughter, who is living with her junkie mother and her new lover, a porn king.

Before the painfully ridiculous finale, Swordfish is a mildly entertaining movie. The film opens with Stanley and Shear’s crew already in the bank where they plan to access the money. The FBI, led by Cheadle, has already surrounded the bank. The movie then flashes back to when it all began, and works its way back to the opening scene, which is now at the end of the film. Get it?

Speaking of the opening scene, director Dominic Sena throws one of the more memorable hostage-rescue-gone-bad at us in recent memory. The scene features a bank hostage strapped with explosives that are rigged to explode if she walks too far from the bank. When the hostage is rescued and forced away from the bank, an explosion ensues and Sena gives us a literal 360-degree view of the explosion, showing us every angle of flying bodies, debris, and exploding cars. It’s the best scene in the whole movie, and it’s quite breathtaking in execution. That alone is worth the price of admission.

John Travolta is making a fine career playing charismatic bad guys, and boy does he do it well. His Shear is just as charming as his previous villain roles in Face-Off and Broken Arrow (both John Woo movies, by the way). Shear isn’t that bad of a guy, he’s just willing to go further than his employers in order to finish the job. His ultimate motive is to steal enough money from the U.S. Government that he and his team can wipe out the terrorists wherever they hide; strike at them when they least expect it; and all without restrictions or “rules.” He’s right, because the terrorists don’t play by the rules. Look at 9/11/01 and New York City. These people are animals, and Travolta’s Shear is willing to play it their way to destroy them, even if it means he has to kill a couple of dozen innocent people who wanders into his target sight. In a way, you can see that he’s right. In a cold-blooded, methodical way, of course.

Hugh Jackman’s Stanley is not all that interesting. Forget that he doesn’t look anything like a hacker, or that the “hacking” sequences look more like someone playing a video game than actual computer code cracking. Like all movies dealing with computer hacking, directors are forced to use extreme measures to portray the hacking sequences as more interesting and exciting than they really are. That’s the price of having a visual medium like film trying to show something as boring as a nerd hunched over a keyboard staring at a glowing screen for hours on end. Needless to say, computer hacking sounds like a good concept in pitch sessions, but execution is another matter entirely.

Swordfish is written by Skip Woods, who seems to be trying too hard to be “cool” and “hip.” The movie relies on its visuals as supplied by director Sena and cinematographer Paul Cameron than its uninteresting plotting. Even the brief interruption in linear storytelling is not that creative since it’s been done to death post-Pulp Fiction. Woods does give us one other creative scene. In it, Stanley is sitting on a chair and given a minute to hack into a security system, all while a gun is pressed against the side of his head and a woman has her head in his lap. Talk about pressure! Or is that ecstasy?

Co-star Halle Berry, who was reported to have been paid a handsome sum to expose her breasts, looks good in tight, thigh-hugging clothes. Other than that, she really doesn’t do much except provide the film’s eye candy. The rest of the cast flashes on by, including Cheadle, who has the thankless role of that generic law enforcement guy in charge of a hostage situation who also has to chase after that bad guy who isn’t all that bad. Blah.

The ending, of course, is grossly beyond the realm of possibility. Then again, much of Swordfish is up for grabs when it comes to common sense, so I suppose the logic behind the film’s ending isn’t so hard to swallow when considered within that framework. Swordfish is not all that exciting or hip, just barely serviceable. Fortunately, it has a killer opening scene.

Dominic Sena (director) / Skip Woods (screenplay)
CAST: John Travolta …. Gabriel Shear
Hugh Jackman …. Stanley Jobson
Halle Berry …. Ginger Knowles
Don Cheadle …. Agent J.T. Roberts
Sam Shepard …. Senator Reisman
Vinnie Jones …. Marco
Drea de Matteo …. Melissa

Buy Swordfish on DVD