USA 2001
director : Dominic Sena
script : Skip Woods
cinematography : Paul Cameron
editing : Stephen Rivkin
notable producers : Joel Silver, Skip Woods
lead actors : Hugh Jackman, John Travolta, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle
99 minutes

Swordfish isn’t post-modern, it’s post-classical. It’s a classic action picture, but it follows it in a very modernist way. The modernism comes from its classicism.” – Joel Silver

Silver’s comment reminds me of a what parental-guidance website Screen It! said about Dude, Where’s My Car? : “Various songs have lyrics that can’t be understood, so there’s the possibility that something objectionable might be in them.” Silver’s absurd claim is almost certainly meaningless, but if there is meaning in there somewhere, it’s probably offensive. The same is true of Swordfish itself – an enjoyable enough thick-ear thriller while you’re watching it; in retrospect a tacky piece of opportunistic crud.

As with so many of these Bruckheimer/Silver-type productions (Pearl Harbor, Con Air, Sena’s previous Gone In 60 Seconds) Swordfish‘s visuals are burnished with a superficial gloss, a kind of late-afternoon sepia glow. Sena could get away with it in 60 Seconds, given that picture’s essentially retro, car-centric sensibility. But this time the mood is supposedly much more high-tech and futuristic, and by the end, it’s as if the treacly gloop has somehow oozed out of the screen like a smoggy ectoplasm, blocking your pores.

This isn’t so much a movie, more an excuse for a flashy exercise in ‘style,’ hung on an over-complicated but essentially flimsy plot, which sees master-criminal Gabriel (Travolta) recruiting reluctant master-hacker Stanley (Jackman) into his latest mega-heist. We begin right in the middle of the bank job, culminating in a catastrophic explosion which is, it must be said, an outrageous visual tour-de-force, Sena switching to Matrix-style slow-motion and whizzing his cameras through a full 360-degree panorama of the scene. This ‘money shot’ is almost worth the price of admission on its own, but there’s a downside – having set the bar so high, Sena never comes anywhere near it again. Instead, he resorts to ever more desperate attempts at upping the ante.

If there’s one scene that sums up the whole movie, it’s the bit where Travolta tests Jackman’s legendary keyboard skills by giving him one minute to hack into a Defense Department computer system. With a gun to his head. While receiving a blow job. Perhaps understandably, Jackman narrowly misses his deadline, despite being the fastest typist in the history of movies – Swordfish surpasses even AntiTrust for the sheer number of tedious, jargon-heavy ‘hacking’ scenes full of bleeping computer screens.

As if in over-compensation for these ‘techno-nerd’ moments, Sena later injects a characteristic note of gratuitous excess into over-blown action sequences, with a LA city bus being hoisted high into the air by a customised helicopter. This for no obvious reason except nobody’s tried it before, and it’s hopefully one-up on anything in Speed and Die Hard. Moments like these do have a kind of engaging silliness about them, but then scriptwriter Woods goes and spoils things by injecting some loopy twists and out-of-place political stuff – another unwelcome deviation from the 60 Seconds formula, a harking-back the muddle-headed, offensively smug sociology of Sena’s debut, Kalifornia.

Travolta’s operation is revealed as an anti-terrorist unit under the supervision of a corrupt senator, played by Sam Shepard, of all people, and it’s a tough call to say who has less to do between Shepard and Don Cheadle who’s stuck in a thankless LA-cop role even less interesting than the one he played in Traffic. Travolta, meanwhile, is back in the wisecracking-villain mode familiar from Broken Arrow, with a few unexpected, sly touches of Warren Beatty. But ultimately his Gabriel, with his over-elaborate hair, bizarre chin-beard and porn-baron dress sense embodies an adolescent’s crass idea of ‘cool,’ no matter how many layers of irony are supposedly in operation. This kind of spurious slickness – Sena’s kind – is enough to give ‘style’ a bad name.

19th June, 2001

by Neil Young
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