WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Lonely, broke, and banned from seeing his daughter, computer hacker Stanley Jobson is lured into the service of dangerous and shadowy figure Gabriel Shear by the promise of lots of money and the body of his associate, Ginger. Although Stanley is initially prepared to help Gabriel, when his mode of operating and motives become clear, Stanley’s little bank-hacking job becomes a game with deadly consequences.
Arriving at the end of John Travolta’s post-Pulp Fiction renaissance, Swordfish is essentially a heist movie, featuring Travolta as Gabriel, the brilliant-but-brutal mastermind of a plot to steal $9.5 billion from the US Government, the government having ‘earned’ the cash by laundering drug money in the (real-life) operation that gives the film its name. This being a 21st Century heist movie, however, Gabriel and his gang can’t simply march into the bank, wave a few guns around and stroll off with the loot; the money is hidden behind layers of computer encryption, so the best available hacker in the land needs to be found to get past it.
Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman) is that hacker, but since serving a jail term Stanley’s banned from touching computers and now lives out in the scrubs, missing his daughter and aimlessly hitting golf balls into the desert. Will money and the enticements of Gabriel’s girl Ginger (Jackman’s X-Men colleague Halle Berry) overcome Stanley’s reservations? Of course they will, if it means he can see his daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes), even with Don Cheadle’s FBI guy breathing down his neck.
For action fans who simply like to see guns, car chases, things blowing up and spectacular stunts, Dominic Sena’s film is a blast, opening (about halfway through the plot) with an astonishing explosion sequence and culminating in a busload of robbers and hostages escaping from the police in thoroughly original fashion; there are plenty of knowing jokes about Hollywood, enough twists and turns to keep the viewer bemused (why is there a double of Gabriel’s body down in the cellar?), and the director handles the potentially dull computer hacking sequences with verve (and dance music), Stanley initially working at gunpoint whilst being fellated by a cutie, later on racing to satisfy Gabriel’s demands whilst Ginger dangles from a rope.
On the surface, Swordfish is an effective, big-budget thriller whose big-budget cast (and, for some reason, Vinnie Jones) all do their bits perfectly competently; yet in a number of respects, the film feels off. Firstly, there is the character of Ginger, who exists only to look stunningly pretty and keep Stanley interested: Berry’s notorious topless scene, whether she was paid extra for it or not, actually works against the film as it is completely asexual in tone and confirms that she and Jackman have very little chemistry; and Ginger’s apparent suffering later reveals a streak in the film that objectifies women at best and is misogynistic at worst.
This impression is heightened by the fate of Holly’s mother Melissa, who is killed along with her new partner when Gabriel’s cronies kidnap Holly. In any normal situation we (and Jackman) might be a bit disturbed by the discovery, but as Melissa is a drunk who has turned to making porn movies (SO IS A BAD MOTHER, should the implication not be clear enough), we are invited not to dwell on it in the slightest. All very nasty.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is Travolta’s Gabriel, though this is not to criticise the actor. Gabriel explains that he works for a shadowy organisation called Black Cell, a counter-terrorist unit so secret that it can bump off senators without consequence so long as it continues to eliminate threats to the American way of life, even if it has to end or compromise hundreds of other American lives to keep the operation going. Stanley identifies this way of thinking as mad, but everything about the film – especially its showy ‘Ta-daa’ ending – gives Gabriel’s thought processes the seal of approval. Before the events of September 11th, 2001 (the film opened in June of that year) this macho posturing would have seemed absurd: afterwards, merely pathetic. If the intention was to make Travolta a ‘good’ bad guy, something akin to Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, then the writers failed him, and history has made his character look very foolish.
As I have already indicated, if all you are after is noisy, callous entertainment, Swordfish delivers a hundred minutes of it with enough style to override the usual complaints about the plot falling apart if looked into too closely. Unfortunately, the glaring unpleasantness that lies just beneath the surface is all too evident if you look into the film in any depth at all.