Reeling 'Em In
Swordfish Recombines Generic Action-Movie
Elements For This Summer's Thrill-Seekers
By Patrick Reed

Travolta recruits an A-list group of Hollywood big-hitters to destroy
the critics who panned Battlefield Earth.

Pearl Harbor fired a warning shot across the bow Memorial Day weekend, and now Swordfish clinches it: there's no escape, for the summer movie season is upon us all. Witness: HBO goes "Behind the Scenes" with Swordfish, replete with cast-member tomfoolery, shot-by-shot explications, and producer-Svengali Joel Silver babbling about explosions. Swordfish is showcased on "MTV Cribs," featuring narcissism of the highest order with John Travolta's jet, Halle Berry's shopping spree and Joel Silver showing off his office while babbling about explosions. Hugh Jackman on Leno, Travolta on Letterman, a tie-in commercial with Heineken - aw, to hell with it, resistance is futile. Like many a Hollywood movie today, in terms of both plot and visual construction Swordfish recombines parts of previous films from its particular genre. To their credit, the makers of Swordfish baldly acknowledge their thievery, and assume that their action-hungry audience doesn't care.

The set-up: Hugh Jackman (the Wolverine in last summer's X-Men) plays a Hall-of-Fame computer hacker named Stanley who is just out of prison, living in G.W. Bush's Midland, Texas (in other words, hell) and forbidden by the feds from ever laying his digits on a keyboard again. Halle Berry's Ginger quickly appears, dressed in skin-tight red and talking dirty, and she proceeds to offer him one hundred grand to break his parole and meet with a mysterious figure in Los Angeles. Once in L.A., Stanley meets with Gabriel (Travolta), a government mercenary living large - sports coupes and Humvees, stylish 'n surly henchmen, a stable of blonde hussies - who needs Stanley to crack a labyrinthine computer code and set up a "bug" in order to re-route financial accounts. By doing so, Gabriel and his cohorts can secure billions in DEA money (from a project called "Swordfish") that has been earning interest for fifteen years, and use the money to kill terrorists. Working for a corrupt Senator (Sam Shepard), Gabriel is motivated not by simple greed but an inflated sense of his own role in protecting "the American way of life" - his self-justification is a flippant rehash of Jack Nicholson's "you need me on that wall" patriotic bombast penned by Aaron Sorkin in A Few Good Men (1992).

Truthfully, it's hard to find an aspect of Swordfish that doesn't derive from some other action movie during the last ten years or so. Imagine the following conversation between the powers-that-be, with Silver calling the shots: "Let's make Stanley more likable let's put his preteen daughter in danger (Silver's The Last Boy Scout, from 1991)!" Or, "Hey, folks just can't get enough of The Matrix (Silver again, from 1999)! Let's load a lot of technical gobbledygook in the script, and show countless rapidly-spinning numerical combinations on a computer screen as the hacker works his magic! And don't forget the techno music!" And, "Remember True Lies (1994)? 'Member the way they flew through skyscrapers, and all of the resulting explosions and freefalls? Let's try a twist on that - hey, let's cross it with Speed (1994)!" (Actually, the final reference is actually made onscreen by Gabriel/Travolta, and alludes to Steven Spielberg's chase film The Sugarland Express (1974), showing that at least the screenwriter Skip Woods has a mental movie archive that predates Schwarzenegger and Stallone. In fact, the greatest risk Swordfish takes, by a long shot, is to have Travolta's character begin the movie with a soliloquy on the merits of Sidney Lumet's bank-heist classic Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Who among Swordfish's target audience remembers this movie? How many of them were born before this movie?)

As for performances: Hugh Jackman may yet break out of the action mold, but here the filmmakers emphasize his beefcake quotient and, in one silly scene, have him perform a semi-choreographed sequence (to trance DJ Paul Oakenfold's beats) as he labors on his supercomputer. Travolta has done this kind of stuff before - in John Woo's Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997) - but considering his recent string of embarrassments (culminating with last summer's Battlefield Earth, of course), Swordfish could serve as a comeback of sorts. The ever-under-utilized Don Cheadle, so good in his breakthrough Devil In A Blue Dress (1995), shows up as a cyber-crime cop but is mainly a bystander. Halle Berry does not fare well either, but, hey, this is a Hollywood action movie, and misogyny is an absolute requisite - indeed, according to blockbuster logic, the "women equal double-crossing harlots" equation is to be pile-driven into the testosterone-fueled craniums of the action-film fan base, and Silver and company definitely comply. Swordfish may be visually sleek, and capable of accelerating the heartbeat now and then, but it's nothing that the masses haven't seen plenty of times before. Still, as all of the relentless, multimedia-coordinated "buzz" indicates, it's summer movie season - it's ritual time. Check your gray matter at the ticket window.