There’s a certain brazenness affecting Dominic (Kalifornia) Sena’s new film, at least on the surface. Not only does Swordfish offer the usual action movie bump ‘n’ grinding—thrillingly fast-cut car chases, humungo fireball explosions, wildly improbable shootouts, gargantuan automatic weapons, and turbo-charged computers, John Travolta sporting some kind of chin-hair-stripe, and oh yes, Halle Berry’s breasts—but it also serves up some seriously family-values-oriented heroics, premised on a father’s love for his dear little daughter. Hard to believe that one movie might bring all this commotion together. But indeed, the most incredibly obnoxious and ridiculous thing that Swordfish manages is to draw a thematic connection between such noble paternal devotion and Halle Berry’s breasts. Now that’s cocky.
These two rather remarkable elements are not-so-neatly squashed into a plot that becomes increasingly ridiculous by the minute. The whole shebang begins with an admittedly stunning sequence, in which the villainous superspy-antiterrorist Gabriel Shear (Travolta doing his best to be menacing , but thwarted by this silly stiff upper lip affect he’s perfected of late) is explaining the significance of Sonny’s downfall in Dog Day Afternoon, moralizing about media frenzies, and decrying the lack of “realism” in movies. (His rather obvious analysis is reminiscent of Tarantino’s more incisive, funnier takes on “Like a Virgin” and Top Gun, and so, Gabriel comes up short—but more on the film’s worries about guy deficiencies, later.)
John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Camryn Grimes, Sam Shepard, Drea de Matteo
After holding forth, Gabriel sips his espresso, then stands as the camera pulls out. Suddenly you see that he’s in a bank, surrounded by hostages, each strapped with 20 pounds of C4, so that, according to the waxing-poetical fed on the spot, Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle), they are turned into “the world’s largest walking Claymore mines.” In an appropriate panic, Roberts warns his clueless superiors, “Don’t fuck with his guy!” They do, of course, and so the whole city block blows up (in front of a nicely orchestrated 360-degree-circling-dodging-weaving camera), and then… the film takes you back, “4 days earlier,” so that you can see what led to this stupendous disaster. This going back is too bad, because what comes after (or before) that niftily-effected detonation is not only uninteresting, but also increasingly dim-witted.
On cue, then, you meet the hero, devoted father Stanley (Hugh Jackman), practicing his golf swing on a Midland, Texas rooftop. The sky is grim orange, his home is decrepit and depressing, and, no small thing, he’s remarkably well worked out for someone who’s supposed to be down on his luck. It seems that Stanley is (yawn) the “best hacker in the world,” busted a couple of years ago by Roberts, and now, fresh out of prison, instructed never to touch a computer keyboard as long as he lives… or else.
This means, most obviously, that he should not accept the proposition put to him by Ginger (Halle Berry), who arrives driving a snappy red convertible, wearing a clingy red mini-dress, and eating red licorice. Gee, do you think she’s gonna be trouble? The proposition—travel with her to LA to meet Gabriel, who, it’s revealed right off, is working for a corrupt Senator (Sam Shepard: the playwright who crafted Tooth of Crime is reduced here, presumably, to paying rent)—is so plainly a catastrophically bad idea that you can’t imagine why he says yes. True, Gabe pushes hard, arranging for Stan’s induction blow-job from a Gabe-minion named Helga, administered while the inductee is racing to complete some goofy hacker test. With such staggeringly unsubtle tactics (and the promise of a $10 million pay-day), Gabe convinces Stan into agreeing to hack into some top-secret government system, to steal some astronomical slush fund monies, intended to finance Gabriel’s ideologically-enhanced rampaging (this has something to do with ridding the world of pesky terrorists, especially those whose names sound like “Osama Bin Laden”).
Stan has his own rationale for his own masturbatory computer-keyboard-action, and that is his ennobling love for his adorable daughter, Holly (Camryn Grimes). Not only is Holly cute and precocious, but she needs to be rescued from her life with her mother/his ex (Drea de Matteo), a boozy porn actress whose current husband apparently makes sex flicks in their expensively tacky living room. Ginger, so perceptive, nails Stan right off, reminding him that he needs Big Money for the Best Family Lawyer on the Planet in order to win custody of the girl. And so, Stan’s instantly turned into the dopey-pawn-hero in the oldest plot in the book: reluctant expert is lured back into his old evil biz, against his will but for a good cause—actually, it sounds a lot like Sena’s very own Gone in 60 Seconds, perhaps the only movie featuring Angelina Jolie where it’s (almost) difficult to watch her (then again, no one’s seen Original Sin yet, as MGM has postponed its opening for months).
But okay. So what if the hero is predictable and the bad guy revolting? And so what if poor Roberts is forever a step behind his quarry? None of this makes Swordfish noteworthy, only a lot like most every other action movie. What has made the film worthy of Access Hollywood headlines and late night talk show jokes is the fact that Halle Berry was paid a lot of money ($500,000 over and above her original contract) to show her breasts. The flying bus (the one you’ve seen in trailers) is surely the film’s big action trick, but the money shot, the one that everyone’s talking about, is Halle Berry’s Moment, the moment of exposure. As titillating as all this surely sounds, and as fine as it is that she might want to show off her body for cash (the anxiety about showing skin in the U.S. is notoriously near-pathological), there’s still something creepy about Swordfish‘s use of Halle Berry’s much-heralded assets.
For one thing, the “flash” is a blatantly manipulative occasion to humanize Stan, by displaying his discomfort with the vision—he’s as startled and speechless as anyone in the audience might be. After a rough night of being unable to sleep at Gabe’s mansion (he’s already agreed to the “deal”), Stan comes on Ginger reading a book in a lounge chair. As soon as he walks into the room, she drops the book—oops! Stan the supposed professional acts the fool, big-time, a stereotypical computer geek after all. For another, more predictable and annoying thing, the Moment underlines Ginger’s function as a standard go-between for the men’s unspeakable but always visible homosocial bond, overkilled here by the several times when Gabe walks in on Ginger and Stan in mid-kiss or mid-leer, observes them coolly, then half-smiles. Something’s up. But it’s not Stan: let’s just say that he’s not so bright as he thinks he is.
Intrigue, deception, display, betrayal. All this is what it is, typical action flick sex-play, foreplay for the big explosion or something equally prosaic. And that’s why the hype about Halle Berry’s breasts is where the real action is. While it’s easy to read this as her making her move into mainstream, drecky, white action movies via the most traditional form of female exploitation and/or celebration she might have found, edgeless and ordinary. Still, the woo-hoo about the money makes unavoidably clear what’s really at stake here. And from this perspective, Halle Berry is a woman of principle: she’s getting paid.