I have a tendency to make poor movie watching choices late in the evening when I should probably just go to bed but don’t for no good reason. The latest of such poor decisions was Swordfish. I feel I should start by saying I don’t think this movie is bad, per se, but I couldn’t in good conscience call it good.
In the film, Hugh Jackman (hot off the first X-Men), plays “the world’s best hacker” just out after two years in prison who, of course, just wants his kid back. Jackman is recruited by Halle Berry to join a super mysterious team of thieves/mercenaries/who-knows-what-until-later lead by John Travolta. They need Jackman to write a wor—you know, it really doesn’t matter. Don Cheadle is also there chasing them, but doing a very bad job at it.
The biggest problem with the movie is that it is so incredibly in love with itself. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also never comes across as self-aware in anyway. Instead, Swordfish thinks it’s so ridiculously clever in its plot twists, film references, and pseudo-ironic ideologies. Ultimately, however, it really is a paint-by-numbers crime/action/thriller. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The film just clearly thinks it’s better than that.
Most of the film just feels silly. It came out in 2001, but everything about it screams 1999. The clothes are absurd, as are the hairstyles. All of the suits are super broad-shouldered and lapelled and bright, and all the hair is highlighted and accompanied by silly facial hair. The “hacking” scenes are also ridiculous and make it seem like the filmmakers maybe had never seen a computer before. This is especially baffling since the film takes so much care to get so much right about computers and makes numerous accurate references to real computer science terms, people, programs, etc.
There are also a lot of random “action” set pieces that seem to serve no purpose. For example, there’s one scene where Cheadle is chasing Jackman (honestly, I can’t remember most of the character names) and Jackman jumps a fence and down a steep sandy hill/cliff. So Cheadle and his partner follow him and we get to watch the three of them tumble down a hill for an unnecessarily long amount of time only to have Cheadle let Jackman walk away after a brief chat. It’s a moment that serves absolutely no function in the movie except that it seems like the director thought it would be cool.
Here’s what worked: the opening is solid and sets up the tone of the film pretty nicely, even though it then jumps back “Four Days Earlier” (and boy are those long days); some fun and clever scenes where the film doesn’t feel like it’s being taken too seriously, like when Jackman has to prove he’s a great hacker to Travolta by breaking into the DoD’s network in 60 seconds while receiving a blowjob and having a gun against his head; John Travolta as the villain (hero?), Gabriel. Travolta’s character is ridiculous and silly in so many ways (see the facial hair above!), but Travolta’s charisma really sells it. He’s easily the best thing about the movie.
Here’s what didn’t work: most everything else. The plot is kind of dumb and the twists are pretty telegraphed. The ending doesn’t quite make sense in terms of how the audience is supposed to feel about it. Almost all of the actors are wasted on (barely) one-dimensional characters. Cheadle has a few moments where his talent peeks through, but doesn’t really have much to work with. Halle Berry seems to have been hired solely for her body (which is shown to great effect frequently) and her only lines or character moments seem to be about telling Jackman to stay. The female roles in the whole film could be replaced by those creepy headless mannequins in fancy stores and it would have had the same effect (especially with Drea de Matteo’s heavy-handed role as Jackman’s ex-wife, who seems to be the worst person in the world for no real reason: she’s an alcoholic, drug-addict, married to a porn producer, who forgets to pick up her daughter from school, and constantly tells Jackman he’ll never get to see his daughter again). Most of the rest of the film feels like a knock-off of better films, including The Matrix and Speed (was Keanu Reeves supposed to star in this one?).
Overall, this movie is fine but is not as clever as it thinks it is. The film is at its best when it embraces the silliness and just has fun. The political message of the film is a bit troubling in hindsight, especially given the events of September 11 the same year it came out and what has happened since. As I said before, this move feels like a late-90s movie down to its core, and that wasn’t exactly a great time for movies. I’d say this is worth seeing if you can do so for free or cheap, at the very least for Travolta’s performance and the few moments of fun.