Swordfish (2001)

*. Swordfish is a stupid movie about (supposedly) smart people.
*. John Travolta plays Gabriel, a criminal mastermind. He employs genius hackers like Hugh Jackman’s Stanley (who boasts of a preternatural ability “to see the code in my head, I can’t explain it”). You’d think that with conspirators like these there would be something very clever afoot, but as far as I can tell the only thing going on is a plot to break into a bank’s computer and transfer $9.5 billion into a secret account in Monte Carlo. That’s it. I don’t understand how they were going to get away with it aside from the fact that it all had to do with computers and you can (or at least could in 2001) do anything with computers.
*. Or take the scene where a pair of Gabriel’s henchmen simply walk into the police station and kill the Finnish computer hacker and his lawyer in the interrogation room. On the DVD commentary director Dominic Sena says that he thought that having the thugs just barging into the police station and shooting the two men “wasn’t smart enough.” So he added something “you weren’t expecting,” which is that they get Cheadle’s character out of the interrogation room by way of a prank call and then shoot their victims through the one-way mirror. This made them seem smarter? Really? Does such a laughably improbable hit qualify as smart?
*. So, no, this is not a smart movie. This is a movie where the women are all crazy sexy and cars crash into things and blow up. I mean, a lot of cars blow up. And Halle Berry is served up like a piece of meat. Berry is a very sexy woman, and I have nothing against a bit of cheesecake, but she’s also a good actor and she’s just put on display here for no other reason except to be ogled. She deserved better treatment. It was reported, however, that she was paid $500,000 just to take her top off for her sunbathing scene.
*. Why even bother introducing the character of the senator (Sam Shepard)? I wasn’t sure what his role was in all of this. Sena: “something covert is going on and we just leave it at that.” In the end Travolta has to kill him and all of his henchmen off in the middle act just to get rid of them.
*. Originally Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle) was going to be killed halfway through the movie too. Sena had to argue to keep him in, though to no good purpose. He’s just there to run along behind the action, showing up a bit too late to all the parties.

*. Why is Ginger wearing a wire anyway? I think the point was that it was all a deliberate misdirection of Stanley. But this is another part of the script that really doesn’t stand much looking into. Like how she gets roped into the game of fooling Stanley at the end with her mock-hanging and fake death. How did they know in advance to have that whole bit of theatre ready to go?
*. There were several different or alternate endings included with the DVD. This is usually a bad sign, suggesting an awareness on someone’s part that what they had just wasn’t working. I can see why. I understand they didn’t want the sort of conventional happy ending that Gabriel mocks at the beginning of the film. Plus Sena wanted to show how smart Gabriel is by getting away with it. But the moral calculus is never made clear.
*. I want to be careful what I’m saying here. I have nothing against a heist movie where the bad guys get away. What I object to is a movie where the motivations and morality of the characters remain so opaque.
*. Sena remarks on the commentary that “Travolta is one of the few actors I think who can actually play this sort of disgusting, reprehensible, evil, villainous character and you still like him.” But should we? I mean, he does kill innocent people. A lot of them. But Sera wanted the ending to make it clear that Gabriel truly is a patriot because there isn’t “a glimmer” of this in the rest of the movie. It seems to me that this is leaving things till rather late in the day.
*. Roger Ebert, who is usually a pretty good stand-in for the opinions of the common man (albeit one with a solid understanding of the art and the industry), began his review noting this confusion: “Swordfish looks like the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It’s skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters. There is one person in the movie who is definitely intended to be a hero, but are the villains really villains? Are they even themselves?”
*. Personally, I felt confused by all of the endings. I didn’t really know what Gabriel was up to (was he still working for the government or was he a freelancer?) or why. He just seemed to me like a cocky jerk. Not smart, just arrogant and unaccountably rich. Again: I don’t mind that a heel gets away with it at the end, I’m just unsure of whether or not he was supposed to be a heel. It seems a stretch for me to see him as a hero, even if he is a patriot (which also seems dubious).
*. The car crashes and explosions are really good. It’s about the only positive note I made while I was watching the movie. Apparently I was not alone in being impressed by the fireworks. Producer Joel Silver told Sena that the car blowing up in the parking garage was the best explosion he’d ever seen (and he’d seen a lot). So give credit where it’s due. And the bus flying above the streets of L.A. was spectacular. Aside from that it’s all pretty dumb, and not quite as much fun as it should be.

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