Swordfish is an unfortunate example of cinematic bait-and-switch. The film’s ad campaign portrays it as a cerebral cyber-thriller revolving around computer cryptography and international intrigue. In execution, the hacker aspect of the film is a Maguffin, as director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) is much more concerned with car chases and deafening fireballs, human beings or logic be damned.
The film starts promisingly with a slick opening sequence in which John Travolta (sporting a bizarre glossy bob haircut and even more bizarre exclamation point goatee) declares: “You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make shit." and continues off on a tirade about lame action movies and how to improve them. The camera then dollies back to reveal that we’re in the midst of a hostage situation at a bank and Travolta is Gabriel Shear, the evil mastermind behind it. Within five minutes there’s a horrifically deadly and spectacularly photographed explosion and we’re then catapulted into a flashback to four days earlier that makes up the bulk of the film.
Turns out that Gabriel’s a loose cannon. He’s trying to heist $9.5 billion in covertly gained US government funds to finance his worldwide anti-terrorist activities. He’s assisted by his shapely aide Ginger (Halle Berry, apparently recruited for her ability to run in high heels) and reluctant computer geek Stanley Johnson (Hugh Jackman). Stanley has already served prison time for previous hacker activities. He only agrees to help because he needs cash to fight a child custody battle. No surprise, his kid’s a cute 10-yr old girl, the mom a stereotypical boozehound. Gabriel’s promised payday of $10 million would sure help.
The film largely sags between the action points that Sena inserts religiously and numbingly every ten minutes. There are car chases, machine gun battles, and even machine-gun battles during car chases, all lovingly choreographed and accompanied by the deafening thump of techno music at decibel levels approaching that of an Anthrax concert.
The action points (regardless of how spectacular they may sometimes be) have little or nothing to do with the story which involves computer espionage and electronic embezzlement, activity that is primarily mental gymnastics with little physical action involved. Sena tries to juice up the hacker scenes with jazzy animated color graphics splashed across multiple computer displays and even more throbbing music. In one scene where Gabriel is testing Stanley’s hacking skills, Sena isn’t content to merely show a gun pointed at Stanley’s head – there also has to be a blonde bimbo simultaneously fellating him. But showing someone thinking, grimacing, and typing – even if that someone is Hugh Jackman in a tight T-shirt – is hardly the height of cinematic excitement.
Over the course of the film the action points get ever more spectacular and even more disconnected from the main story line. So by the time a hostage-filled bus that’s eluding police turns into a bus/helicopter combination flying through downtown Los Angeles, one just wonders why. And on the more than several occasions where people perish, we’ve never gotten close enough to any of them to care one whit beyond noting the inventiveness of how their deaths were accomplished.
Since people take a back seat to the action, it’s not surprising that none of the actors raise more than a ripple next to all the napalm. Travolta reprises his brilliant flake role from Broken Arrow, all tics and smirks. The most notable thing about Berry’s performance is that she briefly appears topless for the first time in her career. Jackman has a few nice moments in the scenes with his daughter, but other than that isn’t asked to do much. The biggest loss, however, is Don Cheadle – he’s reduced to playing just another tough by-the-book detective. His previous work shows that he’s capable of much more.
That the cleverest part of the film is its title (which references the "password" scene from the 1932 Marx Brothers classic Horsefeathers).is not a good omen. Swordfish entices with promises of intellect and wit, but it delivers mostly standard gunfire and carnage at ear-splitting sound levels – and rates a resounding CTRL-ALT-DELETE.
– Bob Aulert