Hugely enjoyable techno-babble thriller.

Released in 2001, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 07 Jan 2003 by Craig Eastman
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It comes as no surprise to learn that Swordfish is produced by Joel Silver. The bearded one has been churning out eminently watchable (and forgettable) action-thriller hokum for a good couple of decades now, and this little baby bears all of his hallmarks. What is a surprise is that this one, despite it's absurdities, actually bears up to repeated viewing.

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh on Mr. Silver. He did after all give us The Matrix, and as if to remind us of this, Swordfish opens with the most impressive display of bullet-time photography you'll see until the next Keanu Reeves number. In a scene we return to again near the movie's climax, a C4-strapped hostage of a bank raid detonates outside in the street and takes half a block of buildings and scores of police officers with her in glorious, 360 degree panning slo-mo. It's a startling image accompanied by the distorted screams of bystanders and twisting metal that unsettles and excites at the same time.

The reasons behind this carnage are explained as we jump back in time a couple of weeks and find Stanley Jobson (a run-down Hugh Jackman) teeing off from the top of his trailer out in the middle of a Californian oil field. Previously the most dangerous hacker in the known universe and top of the NSA's most wanted list, Jobson found himself busted for hacking into a top secret government intelligence gathering system and now faces immediate imprisonment should he so much as touch a keyboard. He is visited by Ginger (Halle Berry in her downright foxiest role, grrrr...) who offers him a proposition; hack into an illegal government slush fund account codenamed Swordfish and earn yourself a $10 million payday. Stan's not too impressed, but given his expensive custody battle over his daughter and the fact that people start pointing guns at his head, he decides it's probably worth a laugh.

Leading the operation is charismatic covert operations agent Gabriel Shear (John Travolta lording it up as usual) whose job it is to secretly strike back against terrorist atrocities by blowing huge amounts of stuff up. Or something. Why they have to secure their own funding by detonating people outside of banks (a decidedly high-profile activity for such a low profile outfit) is never made entirely clear, but as always with this kind of thing it's better just so submit and enjoy the ride.

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Like most films of this ilk, Swordfish seems to exist in a cocoon of hyper-reality where nobody seems to have sat down and thought about what is actually either realistic or plain sensible. Hence we have cars that explode upon clipping the kerb (pretty much standard for these things), buses unnecessarily decorated to look like a giant circuit board (in case you had forgotten the film involves computer crime), and a form of hacking that involves talking nonsense to yourself whilst hitting keys at random in something that looks like a day-glo version of Windows. Will we ever see a Hollywood feature where somebody controls a PC primarily with a mouse? It all piles up like so much tosh, but there's generally enough going on to whizz you through to the next set-piece for you not to care too much.

Eye candy is one of the movie's major strong points. From the $1 million (count-em) opening explosion to the twisty denouement nearly every frame is a photogenic snapshot of it's own. Sena and his cinematographer clearly know what they're doing on this front, and the whole movie is exquisitely framed. Much of the action seems to take place in a faintly removed reality where the world is in a constant state of near-dusk that lends the image a deep warmth, rich shades and pronounced shadows. It borders on the noir-ish and certainly gives the film a unique and refreshing look.

The cast also are entirely acceptable, making the most of a relatively weak plot and salvaging some above-average dialogue from the pen of Skip Woods. Jackman in particular is on good form, and a lot of the enjoyment gained from the film stems from the humanity of the relationship between Stanley and his daughter (played by a charming Camryn Grimes who shows no hint of precociousness). In the midst of some utter nonsense Jackman brings a sense of the believable to the relationship that makes us accept that his character might risk his freedom to be with his child, and it's an element without which the movie would have suffered substantially. Unfortunately the stunning Halle Berry is criminally underused, and has unforgivably sold out to the money men for a shot that requires her to somewhat gratuitously flash her breasts for no good reason. Not that as a red-blooded male I'm complaining, but she has already demonstrated her undeniable sexuality in an earlier scene playing golf in which she remains fully-clothed, rendering her nudity cheap and unnecessary.

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Assuming you've already committed to suspending your disbelief for 100 minutes prior to watching, there's very little to fault with Swordfish, and it's certainly light years ahead of Sena's previous effort Gone In Sixty Seconds. The only major gripe is pacing, as the movie sets out it's stall with a high watermark in the first ten minutes and never really replicates that level of spectacle throughout the rest of it's running time. A brave attempt at re-structuring the traditional action movie narrative, or a foolhardy decision to wow the audience early on that succeeds too well? you decide.

Whilst not quite the supreme popcorn affair represented by films like The Rock, Swordfish carves it's own niche as a semi-intelligent yet simultaneously braindead techno-thriller. It raises some interesting questions (is Shear a patriot sacrificing the few for the many, or is he simply a terrorist himself?), blows up some interesting stuff (like Vinnie Jones), and has a lovely sub-techno trendy soundtrack from Paul Oakenfold and Christopher Young. Put it this way, it beats the Eastenders omnibus hands down.

Very nearly a four out of five, but unfortunately it must remain the recipient of Three Arbitrary Disko Units.

Dominic Sena
Cast list:
John Travolta (Gabriel Shear)
Hugh Jackman (Stanley Jobson)
Halle Berry (Ginger)