At the dawn of the 2000s, Warner Bros., Joel Silver, and Village Roadshow Pictures had to do something to keep their Matrix momentum going. So, while waiting for the Wachowski siblings to form and polish their tech triumph’s sequels, neither of which would arrive until 2003, the studio bigwigs developed Swordfish, a tacky, brazen knockoff they undoubtedly saw as the next best thing. Even opening, pointlessly, with a familiar, pixelated-screen aesthetic before adjusting to 35mm, this risible techno thriller fires so much aww-shit “coolness” at its viewers that, upon its June 2001 release, few likely realized they were being hit with hollow shells. It’s all an unwitting realization of the “misdirection” philosophy so reiterated by cyber-villain Gabriel (John Travolta), who talks about Houdini and Dog Day Afternoon like he’s a cultural sage with blonde highlights (also rocking berets and traipsing around his LA-nightclub pad, Gabriel trumps Edna Turnblad as Travolta’s gayest role). You see, Swordfish thinks it’s one heady affair flecked with nifty booms and stunts, but its ideas are as goofily slim as its action is often needless, and director Dominic Sena and writer Skip Woods seem blissfully blind to it all. Their film has all the stylized convolution of The Matrix, but virtually none of the coherence or cerebral stimuli.
Early on, when nabbed hacker Axl (Rudolf Martin) describes Gabriel to the F.B.I., particularly to chosen super-agent J.T. Roberts (Don Cheadle), he may as well be describing Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, and the Wachowskis’ dreamy conceit: “He exists in a world beyond your world,” Axl coos. “But it’s all a facade. He is a driven, unflinching, calculating machine. You don’t find him; he finds you.” Though he initially aimed to hire Axl, Gabriel kills him for his loose lips, then pulls a Warner/Silver/Village Roadshow and calls in the next best thing: Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), a different hacker out on parole for some big, but forgivable, crimes, who becomes the Neo in this wannabe flick. Morally upright, but seduced by the money Gabriel offers (money that, in sums like $100,000 and $10 million, could reunite Stan with Holly, the young daughter kept from him by a rich ex-wife with a restraining order), the handsome pinch-hitter agrees to enter Gabriel’s hedonistic, computers-are-awesome universe, at the behest of slinky wild card Ginger (Halle Berry), who’s kinda like Carrie Anne Moss’s Trinity, but dumber. Also into keyboards and such, Ginger teases Stanley that she, “a girl with an IQ over 70,” can actually “give [him] a hard-on,” but all the line does is underscore the inexorable, integrity-dashing decline of Berry, Hollywood’s biggest joke of a “serious actress,” who, here, famously collected an additional $500,000 for a clunky, gratuitous tit shot. This comes after Stanley’s initial “test,” wherein Gabriel forces him to crack a tricky code in 60 seconds, while a random blonde fellates him under the table.
Swordfish is multifariously condescending, but it’s so inherently clueless that there’s no use in getting offended. The film is shamelessly targeted at ticket-buying young males, from its bulk of T&A to its abrubtly interjected action set pieces (an epic tumble down a hill on the Malibu shoreline is used merely to reunite Cheadle and Jackman’s characters, who have a rocky past), and it might be the biggest filmic failure in making code-cracking and keystrokes attractive. Whereas movies like Hackers and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo make you want to scour the Web with ruthless efficiency, Swordfish makes computer usage seem repellent, from Ginger and Gabriel’s twaddle about worms and cyphers and hydras and firewalls to a cringe-inducing sequence that sees Stanley pull a Paul Oakenfold-scored all-nighter, forcing alternating looks of glee and disgust as he attacks a multi-screen system in an un-cinematic bout of trial and error (it’s a testament to Jackman’s gifts as an actor that he stepped away from this thing unscathed). The movie is also terribly proud of its “shocking” developments, such as when a passenger bus is suddenly air-lifted by a helicopter, and it has the kind of dialogue that makes one want to slap a screenwriter back to reality: “I know what you’re thinking,” Vinnie Jones’s token thug growls to a trembling innocent. “If that rocket-launcher were a suppository, would that bad guy stick it up my ass?” No, Vinnie. No one would think that. Probably not ever.
But worst of all is definitely the oft-incomprehensible preachings Gabriel uses to justify his actions, and presumably provoke an audience the filmmakers seem to assume doesn’t know any better. Apparently part of some anti-terrorist, underground group formed by J. Edgar Hoover (who perhaps passed down to Gabriel his nancy traits), the oddly-coiffed extremist goes on and on about patriotism and how the money he plans to steal (and the people he plans to kill) comprise a small price if it means keeping anti-American terrorists at bay. There’s a smidgen of interest in the fact that this movie arrived just four months before the 9/11 attacks, but its ideas are so far from being valuable to culture that it’s barely worth making the note. (Another detail—a spoiler—that catches the eye but doesn’t seem worth exploring is the unexplained personal clone/corpse Gabriel has, which allows him to fake his own death in the film’s climax.) Aside from Jackman’s acting, which, in moments with Holly, leave the whole cast’s work in the dust, the pleasures of Swordfish are exclusively on the surface. There’s nowhere else to venture. Sena’s bookending money shot, which captures a downtown explosion in a circling, effects-fueled take, is an individually impressive bit of visual muscle-flexing, and Berry, who’s never looked better, is admittedly, one of the sexiest female specimens to ever step in front of a camera. The heavily-saturated palette, now seen countless times elsewhere, does create a slick mood that makes you want the film to work, and the Oakenfold score goes a long way in the aural department. But just as the film flubs its attempt at a get-out-of-jail-free card, opening with a speech that condemns Hollywood for making “shit,” it shoots itself in the foot with the repeated insistence that “nothing’s impossible.” Because taking Swordfish seriously most certainly is.