Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Swordfish (2001)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - Log on. Hack in. Go anywhere. Steal everything.

Use a computer, go to jail. The terms of Stanley Jobson's parole are clear. Yet a $10-million payday awaits the superhacker if he takes on a job masterminded by a charismatic covert agent - the daring electronic theft of a government slush fund codenamed Swordfish.

John Travolta is the mastermind, Hugh Jackman is the hacker and Halle Berry and Don Cheadle co-star in this volatile high-tech thriller directed by Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) and produced by Joel Silver (The Matrix) and Jonathan D. Krane (Face/Off). Log on, tap in, kick back for cyber-edge action and suspense. Your password for excitement is Swordfish.

Director: Dominic Sena
Cast: John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Vinnie Jones, Camryn Grimes, Sam Shepard, Zach Grenier
Box Office: Budget: $80 million. Opening Weekend: $18.145 million (2678 screens). Domestic Gross: $69.772 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 29 chapters; rated R; 103 min.; $24.98; 10/30/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Director Dominic Sena; “The Making of Swordfish”; “”The Effects In Focus” Featurette; Theatrical Trailer; Cast and Filmmakers; DVD-ROM Materials.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/B+/B-

From what I know, John Travolta is an accomplished pilot. I hope he chooses his flight plans more carefully than his acting jobs. Otherwise, keep me out of the air when he’s up there, for Travolta picks dogs on a consistent basis.

Though it’s far from being the worst flick on his résumé, one should still add Swordfish to his list of failed flicks. A box office disappointment, Swordfish offers a fairly generic and bland action experience that has a few decent moments but generally seems unexceptional.

Swordfish starts well, however, with an opening that feels like a nod to Tarantino flicks like Reservoir Dogs. Travolta speaks to the camera and addresses the crumminess of most Hollywood product. The irony seems strong, since this one also will fall into that category, but it’s a gutsy way to begin the flick, and it sets the table nicely. From there, we quickly see a terrorist situation unfold in which Travolta and his gang have wired captives with explosives and they’ll blow if moved out of a certain territory.

After a climactic moment, the film enters flashback mode, as we move four days prior to this event. From there we more closely meet Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), an exceedingly talented computer hacker who spent some time in jail due to his activities. Now free again, he works a dead-end job but remains determined to stay on the straight and narrow. Determined until he gets an offer from Ginger (Halle Berry) for an enormous sum of money to come out of retirement. Though Stanley risks imprisonment if he ever takes up his old hobby again, the money would let him pursue custody of his daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes), so he agrees to take the gig.

Ginger and he fly from Texas to California where we formally meet Gabriel (Travolta). He’s the head man behind this operation. He wants Stanley to use his prodigious hacking skills to rechannel billions of dollars languishing in DEA accounts created as part of the war on drugs; the organization had set up dummy corporations that ended up making oodles of cash, and this money has simply sat and earned interest for the last 15 years or so.

Of course, complications ensue, as the FBI is on their tail. Headed by Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle), this task force attempts to get to the bottom of the operation and foil their intentions. In a way, they have help from Stanley, who appears suspicious of the entire enterprise and doesn’t feel very secure about the course it takes.

Ultimately, this all takes us back to the movie’s opening scene, and we see where it goes from there. I won’t spill the beans yet, but expect lots of action and mayhem.

Swordfish starts and ends fairly well; it’s the morass in the middle that causes problems. The opening scene seems fairly intriguing and clever, while the conclusion is more standard, but it comes across with a suitably high level of excitement and fury. Unfortunately, those bookends stand out because the long central portion fails to provide much material that seems useful. It appears like one extremely long expository piece, especially because we essentially know where it’ll ultimately lead. The flashback format allows the flick to start with a bang, but it makes the middle seem somewhat tedious. Director Dominic Sena attempts to spice up the tedium with a couple of car chases and some gunplay, but it adds up to little.

As our lead villain, Travolta seems surprisingly bland and lifeless. Actually, I suppose “surprisingly” isn’t appropriate, for he often comes across as uninspired in action films. Travolta responds well to good material, but when the source is fairly weak, he appears to fall in line with it. As such, Gabriel feels like a bland part of the film. After the solid opening sequence, he never comes across with much spark or personality, and his development seems virtually nil.

Jackman does a reasonable job as Stanley, but he also fails to deliver much personality. He created the strongest personality in 2000’s X-Men film, but he doesn’t do as well in a more straight role. A lot of the problem resides with the part as written, for it doesn’t contain much flair, but Jackman does little to wring any additional life from it.

Unfortunately, the only way in which Swordfish now stands out relates to its subject matter. The events of September 11, 2001, put terrorism firmly in the public eye, and it feels distinctly odd to watch a popcorn movie that deals with the topic. Actually, I think the recent tragedy will alter the way in which people see Swordfish. (Potential spoilers ahead, so skip ahead two paragraphs to avoid them!) As the film progresses, we learn that Gabriel wants the billions of dollars to fund a covert anti-terrorism unit. They attempt to make the repercussions of anti-American terrorism so horrible that no one will attack US citizens. As the film ends, we see some of his handiwork when we watch a Middle Eastern terrorist’s yacht explode.

We’re supposed to be against Gabriel’s plan because of its illegal elements. He works outside the law and performs actions that avoid the rights and responsibilities inherent in the US system. However, the recent events will likely make many people think more positively about what Gabriel does. I remain on Stanley’s side; this kind of vigilante force has no place in our society. Nonetheless, the opposite position will most definitely seem more compelling to many folks.

Ultimately, Swordfish fails to find much of an individual path. The movie has some solid moments, but as a whole it feels like a fairly generic and uninventive summer action flick. I think Swordfish offers a sporadically entertaining experience for fans of this genre, but it never does more than moderately grab me.

The DVD:

Swordfish appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Yup, this was yet another outstanding visual presentation from Warner Bros., as their string of terrific transfers continues in this nearly flawless picture.

Sharpness looked terrific from start to finish. The image consistently appeared very crisp and detailed at all times. I never saw a hint of softness, as the movie remained distinct and concise throughout even the widest scenes. No jagged edges or edge enhancement seemed apparent, but I did notice a smidgen of shimmering during a couple of shots. Print flaws appeared to be totally absent, as I witnessed no examples of grit, grain, speckles, or other defects; it was a wonderfully clean and fresh presentation.

As he did in other flicks like Gone In Sixty Seconds, director Dominic Sena used an extremely stylized palette for Swordfish. He mentioned this in his audio commentary; he wanted to give different scenes their own distinctive looks, and he did this via the colors. I wasn’t wild about this as a visual choice, for the stylization seemed so forced and artificial; the various hues called attention to themselves in a way that detracted from the story. Nonetheless, the DVD replicated the tones well, as it showed consistently vivid and vibrant colors. From metallic blues to sickly greens to a more naturalistic environment seen when Stuart interacted with Holly, Swordfish provided very precise and well-defined colors.

Black levels also seemed strong and rich. The dark tones always came across as deep and dense, and contrast appeared solid. Shadow detail revealed appropriate levels of heaviness without any signs of excessive murkiness or thickness; the low-light sequences seemed nicely visible without being washed out or too bright. In the end, Swordfish nearly earned an “A+” grade for picture; it provided an almost flawless visual presentation.

While the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Swordfish didn’t equal the pleasures of the film’s picture, it still provided a very solid experience. For most of the movie, the soundfield maintained a surprising emphasis on the forward channels. This remained largely appropriate, as it occurred during scenes in which there wasn’t much action, but I still thought it would have found more opportunities for ambience in the rears.

Nonetheless, I thought the soundfield seemed satisfying. While it remained quiet during a number of sequences, the mix really came to life during some of the more active scenes. The car chases really kicked in nicely, as the vehicles and other elements flew accurately and vividly around us, and the movie’s extended climax demonstrated a lot of accurately placed and clear audio. The elements moved about us in a precise manner, and the entire package created a clean and distinctive environment. Overall, the action sequences allowed the soundfield to breathe and expand, and they made the piece work well.

Audio quality seemed similarly good, though not exceptional. Dialogue appeared fairly accurate and natural. A few scenes came across as a little stiff and awkward - mainly due to some looping - but most of the speech was distinct and warm, and I discerned no concerns related to intelligibility. Music usually showed nice dynamics and depth. A few dance tunes came across as a little tinny, and they could have displayed greater bass response, but mostly the score and the songs sounded bright and vivid. Effects were consistently clear and accurate, and they showed good clarity and low-end elements. The louder aspects packed a solid punch and made this a fairly vibrant package. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Swordfish wasn’t demo material, but it seemed like an effective presentation.

Swordfish tosses in a few supplements, starting with an audio commentary from director Dominic Sena. He provides a running, screen-specific affair that seems reasonably interesting but unspectacular. Sena covers a nice mix of topics about the movie, from casting concerns - including the names of actors also considered for Jackman’s part - to technical considerations to script changes. A few gaps appear, but for the most part, Sena fills the time nicely. He presents a fairly frank and open personality. He offers very little of the usual “happy talk” that often fills these sorts of tracks; instead, he’s willing to mention all of the difficulties experienced during the shoot and he also knocks some aspects of the flick. Hey, he even criticizes Gone In Sixty Seconds to a moderate degree! Ultimately, this was a pretty solid little commentary.

Next we find The Making of Swordfish. This featurette runs for 15 minutes and comes as part of the HBO “First Look” series. As such, it follows the same format as other pieces in that genre: it’s mainly a promotional documentary that provides a mix of shots from the set, cast and crew interviews, and snippets from the movie. The material from the production offers some interesting footage, and some of the interviews are moderately interesting as well, but as a whole, this is essentially a typical flashy promotional vehicle.

The Effects In Focus provides a look at that domain. The program lasts eight minutes and 10 seconds as we see another combination of movie clips, interview snippets, and footage from the production. We hear from director Sena, visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis, second unit director Dan Bradley, actor Vinnie Jones and producer Joel Silver as they focus largely on the climactic bus sequence. It reminds me a lot of the featurette, partially because it also includes some nice behind this scenes material, and it’s also a glossy but good look at the subject.

In addition, we discover two Alternate Endings. These take 228 seconds and 127 seconds respectively for a total of five minutes and 55 seconds worth of footage. We’d already heard about these from Sena during his audio commentary, so it’s nice to get a look at them. He’s right; these concepts weren’t as good as the ending utilized.

Speaking of Sena, the alternate endings can be viewed with or without additional commentary from the director. He expands upon the statements he made during the full movie track and again provides his honest thoughts about the material as he covers the problems he had with the shots.

Next we find a couple of minor bits. The disc includes the film’s theatrical trailer as well as material in the “Cast and Filmmakers” area. There you’ll see filmographies for John Travolta, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Don Cheadle, Vinnie Jones, Sam Shepard, and producers Joel Silver and Jonathan D. Krane.

Swordfish also provides a mix of DVD-ROM materials. We start with “Restricted Files”, which requires that you go online and find some passwords to access “locked” information on the DVD. For example, one piece shows some of the actors as they discuss their familiarity with computers, while in another, Travolta covers his approach to this and other roles. Additionally, Sam Shepard chats about fly-fishing. A few other clips can be accessed as well, but during my brief attempts, I couldn’t figure out the passwords. The material’s interesting, but this game format’s gotta go; Easter eggs are bad enough, but it’s annoying to have to work to gain access to this kind of data.

Swordfish includes a few Internet links. There’s a connection to the movie’s website as well as one that goes to the Warner Bros. “special events” page. Amazingly, they finally updated this site - it lay dormant for a long time - but I saw no mention of Swordfish there other than a link to some DVD product information. Oddly, they placed it under November releases, though it comes out in October. “Latest DVDs” just goes to the Warner Bros. store as it touts a mix of new and upcoming releases. Lastly, we get links to Warner Bros. Online and an option to sign up for “Movie Mail”, something that’s supposed to update you about new WB video releases.

As a summer action flick, Swordfish provides a reasonably entertaining experience, but it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the crowd. The film starts and ends well, but the middle stretches into an extended expository piece that often falls flat. The DVD itself features a stunning picture plus good sound and some decent supplements highlighted by a compelling audio commentary. Ultimately, Swordfish may interest some action fans, but it’s not something I can strongly recommend.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5642 Stars Number of Votes: 140
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