Sink and swim
‘Swordfish’ can’t quite hack it as an action thriller
With a few keystrokes, cyber crooks can steal fortunes and ruin people's lives. Because of the amount of damage hackers can cause, movies about them don't have to be boring. Thus the makers of "Swordfish" figured no one wanted to see a flick about tired, disheveled loners tapping at keyboards for hours on end. They're probably right, but one wonders how a little subtlety might have helped. Somehow producer Joel Silver (the "Lethal Weapon" series and "The Matrix") manages to squeeze in more gunplay, car chases, explosions and cleavage than can normally be expected from a movie involving circuitry.
Australian actor Hugh Jackman ("X-Men") stars as Stanley Jobson, a former hacker whose fortunes are as dim as hordes of current Internet startups. After having been busted for breaking into FBI systems, Stanley is on parole and struck maintaining oil rigs because he is banned from even touching a computer. In another cruel twist of fate, his daughter is in the hands of his pill-popping ex-wife and her porn merchant husband.
It's no wonder he agrees to a suspicious offer from a beautiful stranger named Ginger (fellow "X-Men" star Halle Berry). She leads him to a slick tycoon known only as Gabriel (a slimmed-down John Travolta). Despite his moniker, Stanley quickly discovers Gabriel is far from angelic. Tested at gunpoint, Stanley discovers that he can still break into the tightest of security systems despite the 20-month hiatus from a keyboard and mouse. Stanley stands to make a tidy sum for helping crack into a hidden government fund, but Gabriel rewards failure with death. To make matters worse, the FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who busted Stanley in the first place is onto the scam.
The setup is occasionally smarter than one might expect from Silver and "Gone in Sixty Seconds" director Dominic Sena. Travolta, projecting a menace and sure-handedness he's sorely lacked in recent flops like "Battlefield Earth," delivers an eerily mesmerizing opening monologue lamenting the lack of realism in current films and how an enterprising criminal should demand more in a hostage situation. The words, credited to Skip Woods, are often clever (Travolta pokes fun at the "bong-influenced" rants of independent filmmakers).
Among the other refreshing touches, Cheadle's Agent Roberts is a good deal sharper than most recent movie crime solvers (check out the dopey cops in "Gone in Sixty Seconds"). He may never touch a terminal, but he can read perps' faces well enough to guess their intentions.
With a stronger than usual cast, it's a shame that Sena and his crew nearly ruin the film with a sense of overkill. The director delivers so many "Silverisms" that tense sequences degenerate into silliness. In one glaring example, Jackman has to hack into a system while a pistol is at his temple and an exotic hooker (named "Helga," no less) is treating him to oral pleasure. The nail-biting opening ends with goofy "Matrix"-like images (objects hang in mid-air). Characters with no military experience suddenly take to rocket launchers like ducks to water. There's also a strangely ridiculous bit where Stanley codes while "Tetris"-like shapes bounce across the screen as he boogies to some marginally funky tunes. If only programming were that fun.
Admittedly, few can accuse Silver of producing flicks for analytical viewers ("The Hudsucker Proxy" is the rare exception). Sena handles the mayhem with reasonable flair. The finale has some jaw-dropping moments with a bus, and his car chases look more poised than they did in his previous effort. Nonetheless, there's an air of audience condescension that makes "Swordfish" feel wanting in the end. With all the hubbub devoted to the short sequence where Berry flashes Jackman, it's regrettable the film didn't concentrate more on her acting, which can be just as impressive as her upper-body. In many ways the sequence is indicative of how the filmmakers might have made a more gripping thriller by letting viewers get a little closer to the characters and farther from the surface dazzle.