Understanding the title of Dominic Sena’s new cinematic atrocity requires a film geek’s love and knowledge of old movies. It’s a Marx Brothers reference, and I’ll explain no further than that, because whether or not you get the reference is the litmus test that will determine whether you should subject yourself to Swordfish or not. If you avoid all movies made before 1981 and never watch any black-and-white crap and think all film critics have their two-thumbs-down up their asses because they just don’t understand that people go to the movies to be Entertained(TM), then Swordfish is the film for you. Enjoy, and stop reading now.
But if you can supply the line of dialogue that ends in the title of this film, then avoid it by all means necessary. Because you’re going to find yourself tickled that someone took this password-related line of classic film comedy and finally used it in a movie about hackers. You’re going to go into the film expecting that someone cool enough to do so — presumably screenwriter Skip Woods, though I’m not sure how far you can trust someone named “Skip” — would be able to turn the action movie genre on its ear, or at least come up with something fresh to amuse us geeky film buffs. Or at least actually use the password-related reference in some meaningful way in the film.
Though if you knew that Sena was the guy who has yet to answer for Gone in 60 Seconds, you might not be so optimistic.
What’s worse — for those of us who find it entertaining to think about movies and storytelling and how Hollywood gets it so boringly wrong so often — is that Swordfish keeps teasing us geeks for a good five minutes or so into the film. It’s INT. COFFEE BAR – DAY as John Travolta, in a TIGHT SHOT, sips his java and filosophizes on film. The problem with Hollywood, he says, is that they make shit. He wants reality in his movies, he says. Take Dog Day Afternoon, for example: Why didn’t Al Pacino just start killing hostages — the real sympathetic hostages, the pretty blonde, the mom — right away, show the cops he meant business? Why don’t the bad guys ever win?
The problem with Swordfish is that it is a Hollywood movie, and know we know, even before the camera pulls back, that Travolta is the bad guy, that’s he’s holding hostages, that he’s gonna kill at least one of them, and that he’s going to win in the end. So Swordfish should be one of those getting- there- is- half- the- fun movies — since we know, sorta, how it’s gonna end — but it isn’t. There are no sympathetic hostages, there are no even moderately sympathetic bad guys, there isn’t a single person onscreen whose fate we genuinely care about. Mostly it’s about upping the ante on gratuitous movie violence. And, oh yeah, it’s about hacker porn, James Bond shit code monkeys probably fantasize about.
Like getting a blow job with a gun to your head while hacking into some supersecret, high-security government database. That’s what happens to Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman: Someone Like You, X-Men), when archcriminal Gabriel Shear (John Travolta: Battlefield Earth, The General’s Daughter) shanghais him into Gabriel’s service. I mean, most guys would probably go: “Blow job and cool hack versus gun to the head. That seems like a fair tradeoff. Plus, there’s those two Barbie dolls getting so turned on from watching that they started licking each other. That’s cool.”
See, Swordfish rewinds a couple days, to show us how Travolta got himself into yet another piece of junk film like Battlefield Earth, and it turns out that he’s a Keyser Soze wannabe who “exists in a world beyond your world,” a world of slo-mo and garishly expensive cars and barely dressed women, a world that looks more like a Budweiser ad than anything else. And he needs a top hacker to help him with his latest evil plan. In Gabriel’s world, “the most dangerous hacker in America” — Stanley — looks like Hugh Jackman, and the number-one hacker in world is some Finnish guy who just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. This is the kind of cinematic reality we simply never get treated to onscreen.
In Gabriel’s cinematically genuine world, his henchguys can infiltrate an FBI field office with automatic weapons and off someone who has been inconveniently detained and will perhaps give Gabriel up, because this is the kind of reality in which cops and FBI agents are morons, and the bad guys are cool and clever and wear Armani. This is the real world, the world we are all intimately familiar with, in which a charmingly antisocial mass murderer like Gabriel invariably engenders all sorts of sympathy from jaded film audiences with his Vulcan philosophy about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one. We care about Gabriel, of course, because even though he’s not including himself among “the few” or “the one” — he wants things more along the lines of Crow T. Robot’s Christmas wish: “I wanna decide who lives and who dies” — he’s got a fabulous haircut. Plus, we still remember Saturday Night Fever.
Never mind how the fuck boring the 1,542,849th car chase you’ve ever seen is. Never mind that bullet time is so 1999. Never mind that the finale reaches, literally, new heights of absurdity that make Speed look like The French Connection. Of course the most dangerous hacker in America would be impressed by a multi-screen computer system, even though you can hook up a ton of monitors to any old Mac. Of course the Capitol Records Building is in Washington D.C.
My favorite moment of reality was Hugh Jackman baring his breasts. Though even Hugh in a skimpy bath towel and nothing else isn’t worth it… okay, yes, maybe it is, but that’s his first scene, so you can leave after that. Unless you’re waiting to see Halle’s breasts. They’re probably real, too.