We all have those films we see in our adolescence that feel profound or “adult” that are inevitably exposed to us in the light as we mature and have a better understanding of the world. The era in which you see these types of movies of course coincides with your formative childhood years, which for me were the late 90s and early 00s. Some movies (Jurassic Park, Titanic, and many more) that felt sophisticated for me at the time continue to deliver unironic pleasures. But for every Men in Black there are dozens more Independence Days: movies that just get worse with each subsequent viewing, with their few merits being derived from their stylistic or ideological timestamps. One such film is Swordfish, the techno action-thriller that has aged as gracefully as a Surge on one of those endless summer days. I decided to revisit the forgotten Dominic Sena joint in the interest of seeing what it had to teach me today in 2017. I must say that I remain particularly fond of the movie (mostly on the level of a nostalgic guilty pleasure), as it continues to shock and confound me. What follows are some stray observations I had from my most recent watch…
– Hugh Jackman, hot off his turn as the grizzled and mysterious Wolverine in X-Men, is hilariously miscast as Stanley Jobson, a name that must have been calculated from the same algorithm that produced monikers like Jack Shephard and Meredith Grey. Don’t get me wrong, Jackman the Great isn’t bad but he’s just a touch (or three) too tough for a character that is written as a bit nebbish and aloof. Someone like Giovanni Ribisi or pre-Walter White Bryan Cranston would’ve fit the “character” a bit better. We need SOMETHING of note to gravitate towards a character who has bare bone motivations of clearing his name so he can be reunited with his daughter. Jackman’s abs may be chiseled but am I really supposed to believe a hacker forced back into the game would even possess such a feature?
– I remember hearing about Halle Berry’s semi-controversial topless scene back when this movie came out. Despite the film’s reviling creepily in this and a handful of other moments featuring her, Berry is undeniably sexy here. Ginger Knowles would’ve been a preferable name than Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson during her tenure as a Bond girl in the very next year’s trash 007 outing Die Another Day. While we’re here: let’s take a moment to eulogize how unfortunate Berry’s flirtations with the 00s franchise onslaught went. She was on the receiving end of a litany critical and commercial failures (Catwoman and the aforementioned Die Another Day). Even the terrific first two entries of the X-Men series felt uninterested in utilizing one of the most compelling characters in all of comics. She may have made some unfortunate choices during this period but they feel like ones virtually any rising female star would’ve made. In short, she deserves better. Though we could’ve done without the questionable moment towards the end where she is strung up while Jackman is forced to transfer some money to yet another account of Travolta’s. It’s impossible to not think of countless horrific lynchings in the midst of a climax for a shitty, redundant action movie. It would be difficult for a legitimately great film to earn a moment as racially problematic as that, let alone one that concludes with a climax like this.
-John Travolta may have been in the process of lighting every ounce of goodwill that Pulp Fiction had afforded him on fire but his performance here as “Gabriel Shear” proves that sometimes you can find beauty in a burning corpse. As per usual, his hair style is preposterous and his character even more so. Is Shear a Criminal, a Terrorist, a Double Agent, or all of the above? The ending settles on the final option with no particular logic to ground it. Still, Travolta’s a lot of fun here and he certainly makes its rewatchability possible.
-A good rule of thumb for all movies: use more Don Cheadle! Agent J.T. Roberts gets a great introduction but it all goes downhill from there. Early on, we get the impression that he doesn’t “play well by the rules” before he proceeds to play catch-up the entire time, always a few steps behind Shear. This part reeks of the type that you give an up-and-coming character actor after a similar role in a much better film (2000’s Traffic) that fails to live up to the previous’s pedigree. How cool would it have been if Roberts sets into motion a plan just as reckless and volatile as Shear’s that would’ve doubled as an allegory for warring factions within our own government? Nah, maybe not.
-The opening scene is so pretentious its adorable, which I guess makes it emblematic of the whole enterprise. However, this was probably the first time I was made aware of the New Hollywood classic Dog Day Afternoon and that has to count for something.
-The script is chocked full of juicy zingers like “I’ll never understand the appeal of fly-fishing, Jim. A little too much like masturbation for me, without the payoff.” and “Surprised that a girl with an IQ over seventy can give you a hard on?” In general, the plotting and dialogue feels like the product of an above averagely smart fifteen year old whose attempting to be edgy in the most laughable way. And let’s not get started on the “hacking” sequences. I’m certainly no computer expert but the jargon and movements are cringe worthy.
-The whole aesthetic of the movie can be summed up in the following “goof” listed on the IMDb page: “Stanley Jobson’s hands can be seen typing in many closeups. His fingers constantly hit two keys at once or miss the keys entirely, indicating that he is not typing but striking the keyboard quickly.”
All in all, Swordfish is a slick, dumb, fun, and insulting early 00s artifact that feels oddly prescient, then and now. There’s a whole host of films that are humorous misunderstandings of digital technology (see The Net and Hackers). Hollywood seemed to not only catch-up to but get ahead of the zeitgeist with The Matrix, which seems more like a cultural anomaly with every passing year. Swordfish positions itself as a successor to the studio’s (Warner Brothers) game changing success with its aesthetic indulgences and attempts at post-modernism. The Matrix, however, succeeds as both thrilling entertainment and thought provoking art while Swordfish can barely hold its own in the former category. There’s certainly nothing wrong for just striving for that distinction but its the film’s ostentatious philosophy that makes it feel even sillier than it should.
Most importantly though, the fact that this movie was released mere months before 9/11 makes its cavalier presentation of terrorism all the more complicated. Gabriel’s monologue about bombing ten churches when “they” bomb a single one of ours makes any sense of righteous motivation on his part all the more elusive. These vague notions of terrorism would feel immediately out-of-date just three months later. What unfortunately remains relevant are notions of a deep, surveillance state that uses broad concepts like freedom and safety as a justification for the government to tap our phones and read our emails. Stanley himself remarks that his last federal crime was done in the name of exposing a government program which did those very things, concepts that no doubt sounded foreign or extreme in a pre-9/11 world. Of all the movies deserving of a remake/continuation, this film is an unlikely candidate ripe for reinterpretation. But I won’t be holding my breath.