Monday, December 4, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

I’ve missed Pearl Harbor and Shrek and A Knight’s Tale and all the summer blockbusters so far except Dominic Sena’s Swordfish, which I went to see because my brother and my sister in law were in town and it was something we could all just about agree on. Going on, my thought was Swordfish looked like a slightly more adult, hard-edged brand of popcorn. Well, I guess that’s about right, but how hard-edged is popcorn ever going to be (you could break a tooth!) The movie sure wasn’t a waste of time. I was consistently entertained by it. Maybe it’s even brilliant. Or maybe it’s that I’ve stayed away from blockbusters too much, and I’m forgetting the rules of the game.

Swordfish has John Travolta as a master villain leading a multi-billion-dollar computer hacking scam; he enlists down-on-his-luck hacker Hugh Jackman to do the dirty work. Halle Berry plays Travolta’s right-hand woman, and Don Cheadle is the cop on the trail. The movie is shot in the fast-cutting, high-gloss style we expect of contemporary action films, with lots of explosions and chases and confrontations, utilizing state-of-the-art special effects. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, but that seems like a quaint kind of complaint in this context. And yet not, for Swordfish’s most intriguing quality is an apparent semi-awareness of its own idiocies and compromises – an awareness that it airs fully on the screen, without ever exhibiting any desire to do anything about it.

The mind believes

The film’s philosophy, such as it is, seems to be summed up by Travolta’s approving description of Harry Houdini as a master of “misdirection” – “what the eyes see and the ears hear the mind believes.” This has an obvious application to cinema, dovetailing with an opening monologue in which Travolta muses on cinematic creation (with particular reference to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon). There’s a shot early on, of a ball-bearing rolling across  the floor and coming to rest with Hugh Jackman’s reflection in it, that made me think fleetingly of Orson Welles, and thus of Welles’ admission in F for Fake that he’s been lying his way through the latter part of the movie. Swordfish is intellectually barren by comparison, yet the movie’s excess and the depth of its confusion are enormously interesting. It’s rather like this year’s 15 Minutes, which I wrote seemed to me as though “a serviceable, unremarkable thriller had been driven mad by the intensity and turpitude of its preoccupations.” Swordfish is dumber and more programmatic than 15 Minutes, which in this somewhat bizarre context may actually generate a better film.

The ”misdirection” partly amounts to the kind of plot twists and reversals we’ve seen a thousand times – characters who seem to have died but really haven’t, who seem to be one thing but are really another, etc. etc. But it also goes deeper. The film oscillates between passing reflectiveness – on cinema, on global politics, on relative moral choices – and vacuousness that’s extreme even by commercial standards. The plot appears essentially insular and passive – crime by computer hacking doesn’t really involve having to do much – but decks itself out with vastly gratuitous action-packed manifestations, none of which seem well-integrated into the core plot.

Topless Halle

The movie fusses over the back-story for Hugh Jackman’s character – he has a daughter that he’s desperate to take back from her porn star mother – and yet most of its other characters are conceived only in grotesquely melodramatic terms. Travolta is the most cartoonish of supervillains, and yet comes equipped with a weirdly grandiose motivation – to use the stolen money to gain revenge on America’s terrorist enemies. The film demonstrates magnificent technical expertise – such as a breathtaking circular pan around an explosion – mixed in with a maladroit approach to basic storytelling and clarity.

When Jackman first meets Travolta, the latter tests him by having him hack his way into a top-security site in less than sixty seconds, while simultaneously having a gun held to his head and being orally serviced by one of Travolta’s blonde minions. What kind of sordid juvenile imagination would ever come up with something like this, let alone persuade respectable actors and technicians actually to put it up on film? But the scene serves to embody the sensory overload and fearlessness that prevails throughout. The movie is already notorious for a topless scene by Halle Berry. I was taken aback by the, uh, out there nature of the scene – the camera cuts to her and there she is, topless, with none of the pansying around that normally attends big star flashing. It’s definitely indicative of a definable attitude. Of some kind.

Sidney Lumet

Nothing is wackier than the film’s evocation of Dog Day Afternoon – which Travolta informs us is Sidney Lumet’s best directing job. Of all directors who might have been name-checked here, it’s amazing that someone as self-effacing as Lumet would be the one. Actually, I think Dog Day Afternoon, although still enormously enjoyable, may now seem mainly like an example of how to do a genre piece with unusual wit and energy and exuberant characterization. But some of Lumet’s movies do achieve a depth of feeling and poignancy that I don’t think he’s received sufficient attention for. Network falls into that category, and it happened that the day before seeing Swordfish I rewatched The Verdict – a simple David vs. Goliath legal story transformed into a bracing meditation on redemption and the nature of justice. When Paul Newman astonishingly wins his case at the end, Lumet moves the camera into a sudden close-up of his reaction, and coming after such a still, sculptured film, it’s almost shocking – effective not just as dramatic underlining but also as moral revelation. There’s not a moment in Swordfish (including Travolta’s monologue on Lumet, in which the camera constantly moves in and out of focus) that doesn’t mess with the camera more than that.

It’s just faintly possible that Sena holds Lumet in contempt, and that this is merely the movie’s cruelest and most personal example of misdirection. As you can see, his film accommodates all sorts of musings – it’s a dynamo of signs and possibilities. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to determine how much of this is accomplished despite rather than because of the filmmakers’ efforts. It’s possible also that Swordfish is as near as we’ve come so far to the theoretical roomful of typing monkeys that ultimately generates the complete works of Shakespeare.

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