Swordfish (2001)

by Todd R. Ramlow



At the beginning of Dominic Sena’s Swordfish, our villain/antihero Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) waxes on about the lack of “realism” in contemporary cinema. As he asserts, the problem with Hollywood today is that “they make shit, unbelievable, unremarkable shit.” Case in point: Swordfish. I suppose that in this opening scene the film is trying to be all self-aware, and jokey, and (dare I say it) “ironic.” That is, we know that this is going to be a balls-out, blow-‘em-up action flick and thus totally devoid of any “realism” or “believability.” Nonetheless, Swordfish‘s irony fails. It identifies the symptom of an ailing Hollywood and goes on to reproduce the illness—one astonishingly shitty action movie.

The story is a paranoid fantasy about terrorism and cyber-crime, and in these pre-occupations Swordfish seems kind of outdated. Is it just me, or does the threat of domestic terrorist attacks and hacker crime seem like so much millennial, apocalyptic, pre-2000 claptrap? Anyway, world famous hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman)—get it? He’s like Steve Jobs’ son—is trying to reorganize his post-Leavenworth life when along comes sexy babe Ginger (Halle Berry) with a job offer from Gabriel that he can’t refuse. Even though he’s prohibited from even touching a computer by the terms of his parole, he’s clearly itching to get back to the screen, and pretty quickly takes the offer: to code a program that will infiltrate governmental computer files and steal billions of dollars. There is a rather elaborate story behind where these billions of “extra” governmental dollars have come from, but it’s really rather immaterial. This is essentially all you need to know of the film’s story; you can imagine the rest with very little exertion.

cover art


Director: Dominic Sena
Cast: John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Camryn Grimes, Sam Shepard, Drea de Matteo

(Warner Bros.)

Like many action flicks, Swordfish‘s narrative plays second fiddle to the film’s stunt work and the stars’ sex appeal. So when we first meet Stanley, he is driving golf balls off the top of his trailer home, wrapped in nothing but a bath towel, with the sun glinting nicely off his chiseled pecs. And Halle Berry gets in on the action, baring her breasts for all to see in a poolside sunbathing scene. Yet Swordfish‘s oddest and oddly sexiest moment is when Stan returns to his illicit computer activities to code a cyber-worm on Gabriel’s fancy new computer system. Stan is clearly in love with the computer and with his own ability to manipulate it. Drinking wine and smoking while he taps away on the keyboards, Stan works himself into a sort of masturbatorial frenzy, and when his program is finally finished, he jumps up and repeatedly thrusts his hips at the machinery, whooping and hollering. Talk about cyber-sex.

Masturbation is one of Swordfish‘s recurrent secondary themes. In addition to Stan fucking his new computer, we have nerdy government techies goggling over internet porn babes, and Stan’s ex-wife as one of those said babes. Gabriel goes on about how fly-fishing is “like masturbation without the pay-off,” and we have no shortage of big guns being stroked and shot off throughout. Perhaps this obsession with self-pleasure is an attempt to subvert the homoerotics at play in all testosterone-driven action films; hey, there’s no homo desire here, all these hetero guys are (at least verbally, figuratively) jerking off over hot babes. Typically, to shore up the threat of its own homoerotics, Swordfish wraps up our two lead boys in a heterosexual love triangle with Ginger.

The film also promotes Stan’s heterosexuality through his fatherhood. Stan’s motivation for returning to a life of techno-crime is to get custody of his daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes) from Melissa (Drea de Matteo), his alcoholic porn star ex-wife. The film goes to great lengths to proclaim what a dedicated father Stan is, most directly by totally demonizing Melissa, whose new husband produces porn films in the family living room. Repeatedly, Swordfish anxiously tries to assert its heterosexual credentials, and fails (as in the obvious eroticism between Stan and Gabriel). This is also what is most enjoyable about the film, to see it succumb at every turn to homosexual panic. But in the end, like so much else about Swordfish, its pervasive homo panic is nothing new to the action genre.

Okay, the story is lame, formulaic, and a bit outdated, but what about the special effects? Shouldn’t they carry the film anyhow? There is one decent scene at the beginning when an innocent hostage is turned into a human Claymore mine and blows up on the street, shredding everything in the explosion’s path. The scene is shown in slo-mo, with a panning 360-degree camera shot that captures many of the steel ball bearings that were inside the explosives as they destroy cars, policemen, and buildings. It’s a pretty neat-o affair. (Unfortunately, the filmmakers were so delighted with it they felt it necessary to re-play the explosion at the end of the film. Once was really enough.) Except for this one scene, however, the rest of Swordfish‘s f/x are pretty standard. The final chase scene is particularly lame. Forget about what leads up to it, but as the bad guys make their escape on a bus full of hostages/human bombs, a big freight helicopter, piloted by a rather inept member of Gabriel’s gang, comes and picks up the bus to swoop them away from the police escort and this police orchestrated “get away.”

This brings us to the stunt in the film, where the bus and helicopter fly around downtown Los Angeles, bouncing off skyscrapers and generally causing mayhem. At one point, one of the hostages falls out of the bus and as he descends his bomb goes off, taking him and several floors of a building with it. While the human bomb is a morbidly funny touch, the rest of the scene is painfully, desperately trying to give us something “new,” some stunt crazier and more daring than we have ever seen. Unsurprisingly, it fails. Maybe it would be better if the preceding 80 minutes weren’t so awful, but probably not.

What is most distressing about Swordfish is John Travolta. More and more, Travolta is becoming a caricature of himself as action anti/hero. Gabriel Shear is strikingly similar to a number of previous Travolta characters, like Face/Off‘s Castor Troy, Mad City‘s Sam Bailey, Broken Arrow‘s Vic Deakins, or even Pulp Fiction‘s Vince Vega. In Swordfish, Travolta’s performance is terrible and over-the-top, like some drag-king camping and vamping generic masculine codes. He has a rep as the “come-back kid,” whose career has had more ups and downs than the most elaborate roller coaster. Maybe someone should tell him it’s time to disappear again for a few years, so that he can “come back.” If he keeps appearing in films like Swordfish, he will (hopefully) soon reach the point of no career return.

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