John Travolta, playing a glib, smirking, icily efficient intelligence operative determined to hack into a DEA slush fund to finance a secret war against anti-American terrorists, opens Dominic Sena’s glossy high-tech thriller with an amusing disquisition on the dreadful quality of Hollywood movies. He makes his point by expounding on the strengths and weaknesses of the 1975 bank-robbery drama “Dog Day Afternoon.” A canny bit of pandering to cinema buffs in the audience, the monologue is easily the cleverest thing in Skip Woods’ script, as well as a surprisingly gracious doff of the scribal hat, because despite its contemporary bravura and flash, “Swordfish” is clearly indebted to Sidney Lumey’s film, as well as to Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” The way in which Woods has transformed his borrowing, however, isn’t nearly so benign: the result utterly lacks either the gritty starkness of “Afternoon” or the lighthearted charm of “Northwest.” Instead “Swordfish” is a piece of ultra-slick trash in which the ubiquitous computer screens out-act all the human performers and the numerous explosions are choreographed and shot far more lovingly than the people they consume.
The plot, which confuses incoherence with intricacy, has to do with Gabriel Shear (Travolta), a mysterious Keyser Soze sort of fellow who enlists hard-luck ex-con computer hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman) to worm his way into the bank records he needs to control in order to swipe the desired cash. (Stanley is initially reluctant, but is ultimately swayed by the prospect of the funds he needs to take his beloved young daughter away from his alcoholic ex-wife and a stepfather who finances porno flicks.) Also involved in the increasingly complicated shenanigans are Halle Berry as Shear’s gorgeous partner Ginger, who may be an undercover DEA plant (just think of the part Eva Marie Saint plays in “Northwest”), Don Cheadle as an FBI agent always three or four steps behind the criminals-with-a-cause, soccer star Vinnie Jones as Gabriel’s hard-nosed enforcer, and Sam Shepard as a corrupt senator in league with Shear but troubled by the possibility of getting caught–as well as a bewildering assortment of other lawmen, crooks and hangers-on. One would need an elaborate scorecard to work out who’s who and how and why characters are doing what they do–and probably a heavy dose of divine inspiration to penetrate the labyrinthine complexities of the increasingly absurd last act–but the effort would hardly be worth it, since all the characters have the texture of plywood and are played with the stiffness appropriate to it; it’s impossible to muster much of an emotional investment in the games such stick figures are playing or how they’ll turn out. To enjoy a film like this, you just have to put your brain on hold and go along for the sometimes exhilarating, always tacky ride.
Sena clearly isn’t much concerned about the humans standing in front of his camera. What he obviously relishes is staging massive car (and foot) chases, eye-catching explosions, and protracted gunfights, combining whirling camera moves and whiplash editing with such abandon that the overall effect is positively vertiginous. He also enjoys focusing on dancing numbers and figures on glowing computer monitors–and, to be honest, some of the graphics displayed, while completely meaningless, are quite attractively composed. To be fair, Sena’s work here does eschew the turgid pacing that afflicted his last picture, the literally unwatchable “Gone in 60 Seconds,” but its frantic quality grows more than a little tiresome in the picture’s final third. Against all the debris, flying bullets and flickering data entries, the actors fade into near irrelevance. Travolta recycles his “Pulp Fiction” hairdo and sinister “Broken Arrow” smugness in a portrait of elegant evil that James Mason might once have envied, but it’s a shallow part that hardly tests his mettle. Jackman is handsome and vigorous as the proverbial good guy forced into a compromising position, but after his scene-stealing turn as Wolverine, one regrets his playing a character who’s mostly defined by his fashionably unshaved stubble and a prominent earring. Berry shows no acting ability whatever, but does appear in various stages of undress–unfortunately, to less effect than you might imagine. Cheadle is wasted as the energetic lawman, as is Shepard as the noxious politico. The remainder of the cast is strictly cannon fodder. As is so frequent in cases like this, the stunt and effect teams are the real stars.
As far as brainless summer popcorn movies go, “Swordfish” is certainly glossy and action-filled enough to satiate audiences hungry for such vacuous fluff, and it definitely beats most recent examples of the action genre (though considering dross like “Driven,” that’s not saying much). Despite the fact that fish is supposed to be a nutritious and healthful food, however, behind the surface glitter and glare the picture offers painfully little in the way of cinematic nourishment.