erik lundegaard


Swordfish (2001)

"You know what the problem with Hollywood is?" Gabriel (John Travolta) asks the viewer as Swordfish begins. "They make shit. Unbelievable, unremarkable shit." You think, Wow, that's ballsy. This thing better be believable and/or remarkable or somebody's gonna look pretty bad.

Written by:
Skip Woods

Directed by:
Dominic Sena

John Travolta
Hugh Jackman
Halle Berry
Don Cheadle
Sam Shephard
Vinnie Jones
Drea de Matteo

"Our job is to make terrorism so horrific that it becomes unthinkable to attack Americans."

Somebody looks pretty bad.

As Gabriel continues his monologue on the problems with Hollywood, he eventually settles on Dog Day Afternoon — an odd landing point since Dog Day is both remarkable and believable. Eventually we realize Gabriel isn't complaining about believability any more. No, his problem with that movie — which he mistakenly places in 1976 rather than 1975 — is that it didn't "push the envelope." Eventually we realize Gabriel isn't talking about cinema but hostage-taking, because he's a hostage-taker, and the men he's talking to at a coffeehouse aren't fellow cinemaphiles but the FBI. After which, thanks to a cop who doesn't "negotiate," things begin to blow up. Two-thirds of the film is flashback: how we got to that point.

So what's unbelievable about Swordfish? Here's a quick list:

  • Hugh Jackman plays Stanley, one of the great computer hackers of our time. Anything's possible, but having worked at Microsoft for a few years, I've noticed a love of computers doesn't always coincide with a healthy diet and good exercise. Why couldn't Stanley have been fat or at least pudgy or at least pear-shaped? That would have been both believable and remarkable.
  • Stanley is recently paroled from prison. Seems he hacked into FBI files a few years back — an act of revenge because the FBI was spying on computer users through their ISPs. He's also divorced and court-ordered to stay away from his 8 year old daughter. This makes some sense — he was recently convicted of a federal crime, after all — except for one thing: his ex-wife has gotten married again. To a porn king. And she often appears in his movies. And she lives in a haze of drugs and alcohol. Now I'm no legal expert, but under these circumstances it would seem fairly easy for Stanley to get joint custody (or at least visiting rights) to his daughter. Particularly if he explained the Robin Hood nature of his computer hacking, then showed the court his ex-wife's acting talents.
  • Stanley is one of the most dangerous computer hackers in the world — a man who hacked into FBI files — so one would think, upon his parole, that he might be watched. Nope. A red convertible driven by Halle Berry roars into his dusty Texas life, whisks him away, and the government doesn't blink. Only through accident does the FBI become involved again. One could argue that we're merely witnessing bureaucratic incompetence here, except for the fact that the entire film is based upon the extreme, maniacal efficiency of government agencies. Which is itself unbelievable.

And what's unremarkable about Swordfish?

  • Believe it or not, Halle Berry's breasts. This was the main buzz of the film. But the shot is so gratuitous that the breasts, as nice as they are, are almost embarrassing. All of a sudden they're there, and Berry and Jackman are forced to talk over them. The shot of Halle shimmying out of her dress, on the other hand, is a little sexier, thank you.
  • The plot. Gabriel is after $9 billion in government money. He needs Stanley to hack into a bank's computers to get it. Apparently he and his men also need to physically enter the bank as well. Why is that? I forget. It's not like they're running away with canvas sacks with dollar signs on them.

Writer Skip Woods and Director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) certainly know how to push the envelope, but they push it in unremarkable ways. A bus is airlifted over LA and crashes into buildings. It's revealed that Gabriel, far from being a crook (or in addition to being a crook), is part of Black Cell, a secret FBI organization started in the 1950s to counteract terrorism. He needs the money to fund this operation and is willing to spill much, much innocent blood to get it. "Our job it to make terrorism so horrific," he tells Stanley, "that it becomes unthinkable to attack Americans."

Which, after September 11th, is the most unbelievable aspect of Swordfish.

—November 3, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard