Now Playing - Swordfish

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

John Travoltas career is all about his hairstyles. Fifties greaser curls and seventies bouffant signaled early success, while the mid-eighties and nineties boring yuppie cut spelled career disaster. The long and greasy locks from Pulp Fiction brought him back into the limelight, and his career was on a major upswing until . . . Battlefield Earth. He got crazy, went for dreadlocks, and it all came crashing down. Now, in Swordfish, he has returned to his Pulp Fiction stylist and added, lest the audiences get confused, a weird little chin-line beard. Maybe its the beard thats messing things up.

Swordfish should have been a good movie. As it is, its not a bad movie, and itll make some money, but its not near what it aspires to be. After an explosive beginning that thrusts you into the action headfirst, it begins to falter. The first lines of the movie have Travoltas character lecturing a group of FBI agents on the necessary elements of cinematic greatness. Dog Day Afternoon, he says, was a good movie, but fals short because it doesnt dare to push the envelope. The screenwriter is trying to tell us that this movie will push that envelope, will achieve greatness. The filmmakers then try to ram greatness down your throat with special effects, plot twist after plot twist, and even a little moral ambiguity. The problem is that they try too hard.

Swordfish refers to a password used by a group of thieves in one of the most ambitious bank robberies in history. Hugh Jackman is the worlds greatest hacker (natch), lured out of retirement by one last job and the chance to make enough money to rescue his daughter from his alcoholic ex-wife and her porn king husband. John Travolta is a shadowy figure named Gabriel who, with his band of ex-military thugs, rules the cyber-underworld. Don Cheadle, who is good in any movie hes in, is the cop trying to hunt him down. And Halle Berry is totally wasted as Gabriels enigmatic girlfriend. For all its plot twists, the story is pretty predictable, and reletively unbelievable. You begin to feel that maybe the twists are only there to cover giant holes in the story. A surprise ending that should pull all the threads together doesnt and leaves you wondering which part of the plot you missed.

Jackman vs. Travolta vs. Cheadle makes for a good triangular set-up, and all play their parts fairly well. The problem is that Travoltas character seems too manic, too crazy to effectively run this vast shadowy operation. One minute hes plotting the theft of $9 billion from the world bank, and the next hes having a machine gun battle on a busy street. Hugh Jackman and Don Cheadle are definitely the saving graces of the film. The supporting cast is adequate, though little used.

Hacker movies occupy a tenuous existence. Sometimes they can work really well (The Matrix), and other times they can fail miserably (Antitrust). You would think that in this age of technology junkies, these movies would be pure gold, but its not always so. I think it has to do with the externals (pardon the pun) of the movie. Lets face it. A movie about some guy typing on a keyboard and clicking a mouse would be about as much fun as watching the download taskbar off a 14.4K modem. Often, the filmmakers solution is to give the computer system multiple screens. The Swordfish computer has, like, ten screens. Its as if the number of screens correlates to the number of plot holes. But, there has to be some kind of reason, some greater purpose to the computer work to get the audience involved. That said, movies centered around technology have the same challenge that every other movie has: get a good story, build an interesting plot, hire talented people. Swordfish makes a valiant attempt, but gets confused along the way. Early emphasis on the technology is overdone, but by the end, the technology seems completely secondary, even unnecessary.

There is plenty of action to keep you on the edge of your seat, and there are some pretty good surprises, as far as that goes. The effects are appropriate; one explosion in particular takes Matrix-technology and expands on it as it thrusts you right into the blast. Overall, however, Swordfish misses the boat. Its not because of bad acting or bad writing, but because the filmmakers couldnt handle the task they had set for themselves. What they intended to be the end-all be-all of heist movies amounts merely to diverting summer entertainment. Grade: C+

Swordfish is rated R for nudity, sexual situations, language and violence.

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