Compared to the hype surrounding "Pearl Harbor", "Swordfish" has been relatively quiet in how it has slipped into theaters. Furthermore, as evidenced in the film's opening monologue, where star John Travolta ("Battlefield Earth") disparages the quality of Hollywood films, instead of trying to be a grandiose attempt at high art (which is what I'm sure Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer were thinking with "Pearl Harbor"), "Swordfish" knows exactly what it is: a 'movie for guys' with plenty of high-tech hardware, heavy artillery, fiery explosions, and gorgeous women to go around. And though this 'fishy tale' doesn't have the goods to make for a truly exceptional moviegoing experience, director Dominic Sena delivers enough decent action and 'gee whiz' moments to redeem himself for last year's "Gone in 60 Seconds".
The hero of the story is ex-über computer hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman, seen recently in "Someone Like You"), who lives in a trailer, works at a dead-end job, and is not allowed to touch a computer as part of the conditions of his parole. Enter drop-dead gorgeous Ginger (Halle Berry, who co-starred with Jackman in "X-Men"), who offers Stanley a ridiculous amount of money to help facilitate a $9 billion web-enabled bank robbery. However, when Stanley doesn't bite, she makes an offer that Stanley finds hard-pressed to refuse: a chance to be reunited with his daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes), who is currently in the custody of his pill-popping porn star ex-wife (Drea de Matteo of HBO's "The Sopranos").
Stanley then finds himself brought before the mastermind behind the operation, a charismatic and ostentatious man named Gabriel Shear (Travolta), who is ably supported by Ginger and a man-of-few words named Marco (Vinnie Jones of "Snatch"). Unfortunately, Stanley's movements are also being tracked by FBI Agent A.D. Roberts (Don Cheadle of "Traffic"), the man who originally had him thrown in jail. And to make matters worse, it seems that Stanley is in way over his head when what was supposed to be a computer-assisted bank heist escalates into a full-scale hostage crisis and firefight with the LAPD.
"Swordfish" is the product of the Joel Silver camp, which has spat out films that run the gamut from memorable actioners such as "The Matrix" and the "Lethal Weapon" franchise to the forgettable films such as "Exit Wounds" and "Romeo Must Die". Thankfully, "Swordfish" never sinks to the lows of a Steven Seagal or Jet Li movie, yet it doesn't quite reach the mantle of "The Matrix". Sena, working from a script penned by Skip Woods (who directed the 1998 indie "Thursday") hits-and-misses throughout the 97 minute running time-- thankfully more of the former than the latter.
On the one hand, there are some genuinely great moments, such as the film's Tarantino-esque opening, in which Gabriel does a dissertation on the merits of "Dog Day Afternoon" before the audience is let in on the context of the conversation. The film's opening is also marked by a giant explosion that is captured by a rotating camera in 'bullet-time', trumping even Tsui Hark's recently-released "Time and Tide (Seunlau Ngaklau)", which uses a similar shot. The film's obligatory car chases (would you expect any less from the director of "Gone in 60 Seconds"?) are also quite remarkable, including the film's final set piece in which a bus is airlifted. The script also reveals some intellectual horsepower in how it builds suspense through the unclear loyalties of a key character, and in exploring the 'ends justify the means' mentality of Gabriel and his followers.
On the other hand, "Swordfish" is bogged down by a number of elements that don't work. As the film's hero, Jackman isn't given a very interesting character to play, and ends up being overshadowed by the over-the-top Travolta. It is also clear that both Sena and Woods have no idea as to how computers actually work or what hackers actually do. As a result, the distinct taste of corn runs through many of the film's incredulous 'hacking scenes'. For example, one scene has Stanley in awe when he sees Gabriel's multi-screen computer system for the first time, and I wondered if he was in awe over the system itself, or if he was transfixed by the really cool screensaver that graced its seven screens. Finally, there's plenty of exposed skin and sexuality injected into "Swordfish" serving no purpose other than to titillate (Maxim magazine readers, this movie's for you!), with the most blatant being an awkwardly-inserted shot of a topless Berry, who was apparently paid an extra million dollars for that privilege.
But despite a somewhat 'fishy story', director Dominic Sena seems to be getting better with age, as "Swordfish" has enough meat in its script and eye candy in its execution to help it rise above Sena's low-mileage effort from last year, "Gone in 60 Seconds". More medium-rare than well-done, "Swordfish" is your typical popcorn flick, offering up a good selection of empty-headed slam-bang thrills for a hot summer night. Dig in.