To see "Swordfish" is to recall another piscine reference, Virginia wit John Randolph's celebrated description of a corrupt but gifted political opponent as someone who "shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight." A more pithy and accurate review this film is not going to get.
A kind of dirty fairy tale in which people with nasty attitudes inhabit a trash-talking, macho world of fast cars and complaisant women, "Swordfish's" tale of cyber-terrorism is pretty much what you'd expect from this first-ever collaboration of director Dominic Sena and producer Joel Silver.
Sena is a high-powered video and commercials director whose previous features ("Gone in 60 Seconds," "Kalifornia") did not inspire confidence in the future. Producer Silver, a veteran action entrepreneur, never met a detonation or a large-caliber weapon he didn't admire.
Not surprisingly, "Swordfish" has paid a lot of attention to expensive stunts and showy explosions. Its bravura opening blast, the result of a hostage getting blown apart, is so elaborate it used 135 synchronized still cameras and took three months of planning. And don't forget the film's premier physical stunt, which has a helicopter transporting a full-size bus through downtown L.A. Some people will do anything to beat the traffic.
Though these efforts give "Swordfish" a primitive kind of watchability, it's a victory that turns out to be hollow. Whatever interest the film creates is squandered via the smug, showy amorality that runs through it as well as a complete lack of regard for even minimal narrative credibility.
It's not just that you'd need Bill Gates to walk you through the large amount of computer jargon congealed inside Skip Woods' script. Or that "Swordfish" is so over-plotted that it essentially becomes plotless. It's that this is one of those films, filled with could-never-happen moments, in which plausibility was on no one's mind. Its only logic is the logic of the explosion, its only imperative is the addict's determination to do anything for a rush.
"Swordfish" opens in the middle of its story, with a hostage situation at a downtown Los Angeles bank. Then it backtracks four days to the arrival in L.A. of one of Europe's top hackers. The man makes a couple of preposterous moves that bring him to the attention of Roberts (Don Cheadle), a veteran federal agent burned out on computer crime who doesn't know that the hacker is connected to a certain conniving U.S. senator (Sam Shepard).
At the same time, a sexual tornado named Ginger (Halle Berry), the devil in a short red dress, is paying a visit to Stanley Jobson ("X-Men's" Hugh Jackman), once the most dangerous hacker in America but now wasting away in Midlands, Texas, and forbidden under threat of future imprisonment to go anywhere near a computer.
Ginger knows all this, and she also knows that the love of Stanley's life is his innocent young daughter Holly, now in the dastardly custody of an ex-wife conveniently remarried to the porn king of Southern California. Ginger offers $100,000 and the promise of even more loot if Stan will just take a meeting with her boss. He should say no; but if he did, there wouldn't be any movie, would there?
That boss turns out to be Gabriel Shear (John Travolta), a spy-secret agent grandly described as "someone who exists in a world beyond your world. What he does, you can only fantasize." Sporting an itty-bitty Mephistophelean beard to go with his angelic name, Gabriel tests Stan's computer skills by having him try to break a Department of Defense code with a gun to his head and a woman's head in his lap. Gabriel is obviously someone who knows what fun means.
Swordfish turns out to be the code name for a defunct government scheme in which $9.5 billion in funds still lurk behind computer-protected walls. Gabriel, whose stupefying goals are not revealed till much later, desperately wants the money. Stan desperately wants to be reunited with his button-cute daughter. What audiences will desperately want, likely as not, is the peace and quiet of the parking lot.
Given director Sena's explosive preoccupations, it's not surprising that the actors are on their own. Cheadle is marking time as the glum federal agent, and Berry is attempting to have fun with her sex bomb persona; Jackman comes the closest to actual acting, though the script defeats even him. As for Travolta, he is game, but he seems to be too soft to be convincingly nasty.
Travolta does, however, have the film's best scene--its very first, in fact--in which he sits in a coffee shop and pontificates at length on the state of today's movies. "You know the problem with Hollywood," he says. "They make horse-pucky." Only he doesn't say horse-pucky.
It's an amusing scene, but it's also intended as a nose-thumbing gesture toward critics and others who might not appreciate "Swordfish's" wonders. Who cares if you think we're bad, the scene implies, we're going to make a fortune. It's not a subtle message, but, unlike the rest of the film, it at least makes sense.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. Times guidelines: foul language, sexual situations, nudity, people being blown apart.
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John Travolta: Gabriel
Hugh Jackman: Stanley
Halle Berry: Ginger
Don Cheadle: Roberts
Sam Shepard: Senator Reisman
Vinnie Jones: Marco
In association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, a Silver Pictures/Jonathan D. Krane production, released by Warner Bros. Director Dominic Sena. Producers Joel Silver, Jonathan D. Krane. Executive producers Jim Van Wyck, Bruce Berman. Screenplay Skip Woods. Cinematographer Paul Cameron. Editor Stephen Rivkin. Costumes Ha Nguyen. Music Christopher Young, Paul Oakenfold. Production design Jeff Mann. Art directors Geoff Hubbard, Andrew Laws, Jeff Wallace. Set decorator Jay R. Heart. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.