|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
Reasonably entertaining if somewhat dubious when it was in theatres earlier this year, "Swordfish" comes to home video with two strikes against it. One is that, in the wake of September 11, what initially played as some abstractly unpleasant fantasy elements now comes across as borderline incendiary. The other is that, for a movie with gunfire and explosions at every turn, "Swordfish" has a remarkably tamped-down soundtrack.
There is a certain point at which "Swordfish" outsmarts itself with too many plot twists, some of which involve admiration for a character who is blowing up U.S. civilians and knocking transportation vehicles through skyscrapers, all in the name of a greater good. (On the commentary, director Dominic Sena repeatedly refers to the character as "a patriot." Other designations – "self-righteous terrorist," perhaps – may strike some viewers are more appropriate.) However, up until then, the film’s pedal-to-the-metal action and a charming turn by Hugh Jackman make it bracingly entertaining, if never hugely plausible.
"Swordfish" begins, as if on a dare, with Gabriel (John Travolta) talking to the camera about how most movies are garbage. He rhapsodizes about "Dog Day Afternoon," musing how it would have been even better if Al Pacino’s bank robber character had killed some hostages and gotten away with the loot. It turns out that Gabriel is right in the middle of robbing a bank himself. When the FBI SWAT team outside gets itchy, Gabriel proves he’s serious. Officers attept to rescue a hostage rigged with explosives that detonate, and the camera follows the results of the shockwave in slow motion along the length of a downtown city block.
This attention-grabbing setpiece occurs in Chapter 2. Visually, it’s extraordinary, but aurally, it is notable for being mundane – there’s a big blast, but there are few directional specifics, save the rolling of a ball-bearing in the center channel as all the debris finally comes to rest. Cut to four days earlier, so that we can learn how ex-con good guy Stanley Jobson (Jackman, probably best known as Wolverine in "X-Men") came to be involved in this messy situation. Stanley is supposed to be the best hacker in the world, but the terms of his parole (following a felony term for tampering with FBI files) prevent him from even touching a computer. Hoping for visitation rights with his young daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes), who’s in danger from her drunken mom and rich, predatory stepfather, Stanley wants to keep his nose clean. Then Stanley’s approached by Ginger (Halle Berry), whose employer Gabriel wants Stan to hack into some accounts that will net Gabe $9.5 billion. Gabriel is willing to pay Stanley $10 million for his services, which is more than enough to pay the legal fees necessary to rescue Holly. Of course, Stanley has no idea of what he’s really involved in, and by the time he gets a clue, it’s too late to back out.
The screenplay by Skip Woods gets off to a great, curiosity-capturing start and has some fun dialogue and startling action, although there are a few too many elements thrown in just for effect – after awhile, suspension of disbelief becomes a chore. Director Dominic Sena stages some extraordinary stunts with cars, helicopters, guns and a cliff fall – see especially Chapters 2, 13, 18, 19, 26 and 26 – that are visually astounding. The sequences are so good in themselves that they aren’t really dependent on the context of the story – the logistics and the kinesis are enough to blow us away.
All of this makes the unspectacular sound even more puzzling. Small effects – fluttering papers and footsteps in Chapter 3, flies buzzing in Chapter 4 – come through very well, but the showier elements, like gunfire and explosions, tend to be undifferentiated and not location-specific.
The menu is designed to reflect the story’s computer elements, so that instead of "Play Movie," the option is "Run Program." Special features are listed under "Systems Folder." The two alternate endings come with optional director commentary and an interesting set-up – rather than the customary on/off options, to get the endings sans commentary, click on the top line ("alternate endings"); for the commentary, click on the second line ("commentary"). The HBO making-of featurette is high-spirited and the featurette on the film’s effects has the agreeable added feature of splitting the screen between the effect in question and footage of the person doing the explaining, so we can put faces to the voices we’re hearing.
The audio track is left unusually high during director Sena’s commentary, coming up to full volume whenever he pauses and remaining well audible even when he’s talking. The commentary is informative if a bit self-congratulatory. Anybody who found the film’s arguable implicit messages arguable when they came without explanation may be pushed straight over the edge by Sena’s articulated take on it.
"Swordfish" is made with demonstrable skill and enthusiasm, and it’s so improbable in its particulars that most viewers in the mood to do so will be able to kick back and enjoy it as shoot-‘em-up entertainment. People sensitive to nuance, however, even those who are normally engrossed in gunplay, may be made downright cranky by the film’s definition of patriotism.