2001: Revisiting SWORDFISH - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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2001: Revisiting SWORDFISH

Martin Rayburn logs on. Has regrets.
Swordfish, Warner Brothers 2001 foray into the teched-out action film genre, was clearly greenlit after the success the studio found in 1999 with The Matrix. Computer hacker (Hugh Jackman) meets beautiful, self-sufficient girl (Halle Berry) who shows up to tell him that he must rendezvous with her mysterious boss (John Travolta), who is described by one character as a man who "lives in a world outside of our world." Ah hem, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus... 'nuff said. Add in that famous 360 degree camera trick and a Helicopter sequence to boot and the mimicry becomes caustic, corrosive, and just bad form.

Thankfully Swordfish only stole from The Matrix on a marginal level as the film's storyline diverges into it's own cyber-espionage drama, filled with double-crossing and mistaken identities. Unfortunately, this course lacks the sort of philosophical underpinnings that gave The Matrix its weight. Swordfish, instead centers thematically on patriotism and misdirection, leading to an ending that plays out like the grand finale of The Usual Suspects, minus the punch and complexity of that film's closing revelation. Rewatching it again after 20 years, the parallels to other more successful features that preceded it are, perhaps, more apparent today, and at the end of it's rather brief 92 minute runtime (minus credits) it's crystal clear why those titles are spoken about more widely than Swordfish is today.

But for what it's worth, between the lewd comments and occasional exploitative and badly judged moment, the film still presents occasional segments of entertainment. John Travolta opens with an awesome speech about contemporary cinema that is impossibly cool (but that also unwisely inflates expectations), leading to a bank heist that goes wrong. The end of this opening scene features an eight hundred thousand dollar still-array sequence. Whereas those depicted in the Matrix were around characters frozen temporarily in action, this one is around an explosion that destroys a city block. Despite the technique's familiar resonances, the sequence is breathtaking, and a true advancement in the technical arts. Much lauded at the time, it's as impressive to watch today as ever and likely the one thing that will stay with you from the film.

The 'hacking' and use of computers feels incredibly dated. Hollywood's approach to this has always been more fantastical than the rather dull reality of the situation. As for the script; given dialogue that is often riddled with clich├ęd lines, the primary actors fare well. Of course, we now think of him in multiple roles from The Greatest Showman to The Prestige, but I remember this was the first time that I ever saw Hugh Jackman without the Wolverine blades and Mutton chops, and I was pleasantly surprised at how likeable an actor he was. He's thrust into some near-cringe-inducing situations but also gets the opportunity to play a role colored by his own aesthetic here, with the exception of one of those irrelevant and now-dated 'hacking' scenes featuring Jackman virtually dancing around a computer console (to his own embarrassment, no doubt). As the other main lead, Travolta's role is largely weakened by the faults of the script, but the actor does what he can, tinting his villainous character with his patented, ironically soothing vocal intonations.
Halle Berry (who is lumbered with what is perhaps one of the least motivated bare breasted scenes in cinematic history) is undaunted by her often tiresome lines, pulling them off with a refreshing confidence. Don Cheadle, who appears in the film as a cyber-crimes agent, is drastically underutilized. His pervasive wit is held back by the confining parameters of the script, but the character he portrays, though underdeveloped, still smacks of a certain hard-driven personality. The film also has Vinnie Jones in it. So...

While visually, Swordfish advanced the still-array effects' boundaries in its first ten minutes with a scene which still holds up today, the remainder of the movie falls under the weight of its own narrative and the shadow set by other pioneering films of the era, as the story is not as original or compelling as those from which it appropriated its ideas. The actors all do their best against a script comprised of both loudly and inconspicuously rehashed ideas, but it's not enough to make Swordfish a worthy revisit.

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