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'Swordfish': An Implosion of Explosions

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2001


    'Swordfish' John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry star in "Swordfish." (Warner Bros.)
You can hear the bong-bong-bong of the big Hong Kong gong banging loudly all the way through John Travolta's "Swordfish." It's not a movie, it's a facsimile – its moves invented in that island city 20 years ago, back when the only thing red about it was its bloody movies. The director John Woo was first and better, but this one is louder and more outlandish.

Despite the presence of a major star, "Swordfish" is a movie whose most sterling contributions are turned in by the computer engineers, the armorer, the cinematography crew and the explosives rigger. The writer? If he got coffee for the guy loading the 5.56mm ammo into belts for the M-240 machine guns, he earned his money.

"Swordfish," then, is the almost pitch-perfect modern thriller. That's not to say it's good, since "good" and "bad," as concepts, have no place in the same sentence with "Swordfish." Nor does "sense" or "restraint" or "humanity"; the only thing that matters is, by today's pagan standards, "Does it cook?" The answer is yes, at least for a while.

This movie begins with a super bang, using its best trick first, which may have been an artistic mistake but certainly wasn't a commercial one. We open with Travolta, seemingly dressed like a '50s beatnik ready to howl the night away, right down to a little jazz hipster's beardlet in the cleft of his chin that resembles a fat woolly caterpillar seeking shelter from the rain. And he is howling: He is expounding, with the sort of loony, charming intensity that only Travolta can muster, on the subject of disappointing movie endings.

His choice of text is "Dog Day Afternoon." He is let down that the Al Pacino character didn't really have the stones to go all out as a hostage taker; how much more intense it would have been, Travolta says, if he'd been willing to shoot hostages every 20 minutes until he got his getaway airplane.

Then the camera pulls back and we realize that Travolta, playing a nasty boy named Gabriel Shear, is head of a robbery crew that has seized a bank; moreover, he is negotiating with FBI agents, and indeed he will go all the way: He's wired the hostages with remote-control bombs, each and every one of them.

The FBI – all except Don Cheadle, who knows better – doesn't believe he'll do a thing; no one is that nutso. So Shear blows up a woman.

Oh, the old exploding-woman gag, you're thinking. No indeed. This blast is photographed in a full 180-degree arc (it's done with about a thousand cameras, la "Monday Night Football") as it splatters outward, so we can watch the spray of shredded flesh and steel-ball shrapnel, the wave of concussion flipping cars, shattering windows and piercing SWAT operators, all the spectacle of your major urban atrocity with none of the annoying tragedy. Welcome to the '00s, ladies and gentlemen!

And this is in the first two minutes!

Unfortunately, nothing in the next 97 lives up to this extraordinarily clinical vision of the world gone berserk. Instead, we flash back into a standard-issue thriller plot, with all its story sloppiness, moments of cheeky banter, black humor (much of it involving oral sex), political conspiracy blahblah and the occasional over-the-top shootout. Of the latter category, my favorite is a scene in which Travolta's hairy Shear stands up in his sports car, pulls a gun out with each hand and blasts cop cars on either side of him, and of course these vehicles float through the air like three-ton salmon swimming heroically upstream before coming to rest, as he gets out that well-primed M-240 and hoses down the world until it seems there's not an atom left with a nucleus still in place. And of course he's laughing madly during all this fun.

The plot contains a few whispers along the following lines: Shear needs to hire a computer hacker, played by the pleasant Aussie Hugh Jackman as a chap so reluctant (legal difficulties in the past) that only super-babelicious Ginger (Halle Berry, in a role far enough beneath her to make you nauseated) can seduce him into signing up.

The hacker must do something I didn't understand: design a worm, whatever the hell that is, so he can insert it in a super-powerful government system at that bank and order the system to deposit several billion dollars in certain offshore accounts. This will enable Shear to fight terrorists. See, Shear is only nominally a bank robber; really he's a right-wing nutcase CIA rogue supported by dark elements of the American political machine, all of which serves to justify a sequence in which a dignified senator (Sam Shepard) is shot to death in a Western trout stream.

Well, why go on? Nobody really cares about the plot, least of all the filmmakers, second least of all you readers, and in the end only the civilized, if ever-smaller, parts of me. The point is, all this hubbub leads to the movie's Big Final Action Sequence, a post-robbery escape caper that involves a Skycrane helicopter, a bus that flies, surface-to-air missiles, explosions, breaking glass, more, bigger, louder, sillier. Unfortunately, the last sequence not only fails to live up to the first, it doesn't live up to several in the middle of the film.

The director, Dominic Sena, guilty of "Gone in 60 Seconds," appears to have studied his master's voice very carefully. As long as he sticks to what's been done before, the movie's what used to be called a wowser, but now, out of deference to the master of the form, must be called a Woo-ser. When Sena throws in the choppers, all that hot stuff cooking away ends up tepid and tasteless.

"Swordfish" (99 minutes) is rated R for sexual innuendo of a not very innuendoish variety, extreme violence and intensity.


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