[Screen It]

(2001) (John Travolta, Hugh Jackman) (R)

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Action/Thriller: A spy of sorts hires a reluctant, former computer hacker to help his terrorist team steal billions of dollars from the government.
Stanley Jobson (HUGH JACKMAN) is a former computer hacker whose conviction for electronics crimes has left him forbidden from touching a computer or seeing his 10-year-old daughter, Holly (CAMRYN GRIMES). Thus, when Ginger (HALLE BERRY), a beautiful and alluring woman, suddenly shows up and offers him a job hacking into government computers for her boss, Gabriel Shear (JOHN TRAVOLTA), Stanley is torn.

While he needs the money to fight his ex-wife in the courts over custody of Holly, he knows that if he's caught in his old ways, he may be put away for good. Despite that possible ramification, the amount of money offered to him is to enticing and so he joins Gabriel's team that includes Ginger, Marco (VINNIE JONES), a tough henchman, and others including U.S. Senator Reisman (SAM SHEPARD) who's somehow involved with them.

As Stanley sets out to hack into a government computer system to help the terrorism-based spy steal billions of dollars to fund his own brand of patriotism, the computer hacker must not only deal with Gabriel's lethal behavior and suspicious nature, but also Agent Roberts (DON CHEADLE), the government field agent who previously arrested him and would love to capture both him and Gabriel.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Any time a film, or at least a character within it, so brazenly attacks other movies and the great Hollywood moviemaking machine, it's either a very brave or extremely dumb move. After all, it obviously comes off as something of a biting the hand that feeds you mentality. Worse yet, it inevitably leads both viewers and critics alike to judge the resultant film based on the criticism made within it.

In the opening scene of "Swordfish," the character played by John Travolta accuses films of being pieces of fecal matter - in a manner of speaking - and bank robbery ones like "Dog Day Afternoon" not pushing the envelope far enough in terms of story.

Director Dominic Sena's follow-up to "Gone in 60 Seconds" isn't stupid in regards to such matters as it doesn't continue that rant beyond that scene, but apparently only uses it in an attempt to infuse some Tarantino-like, hip coolness into the proceedings. It is a dumb move, however, to evoke purposeful comparisons to far superior films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "DDA" when your film turns out to be nothing more than an often ludicrous, high-octane action flick that's all gussied up as a smart thriller.

The film's true nature quickly becomes apparent moments after the above scene when Sena decides to stage a "Matrix"-like bullet time scene (where the camera seemingly zips around the action in a 360 degree move), but on a far grander scale. As an explosion of C-4 vaporizes several people, Sena moves the shot around the resultant destruction - still in slow motion progress - that covers what looks like an entire city block.

While that sequence is spectacular to behold - if somewhat fake looking at times - it belies Sena and screenwriter Skip Woods' ("Thursday") misbegotten effort of fooling us into believing what sort of picture this would be. In short, if you like highly choreographed and grandiose action scenes, along with the various sights of scantily clad or partially nude women (including that concerning a well-known star), you'll probably enjoy what's offered here.

Most such sequences - and I'm referring to the action rather than the skin ones - may occasionally be too forced, ridiculous and/or obvious in their intent (okay, that applies to the scantily clad ladies as well). Yet, they work rather well on a visceral, eye candy level (ditto) and are capped by a scene where a bus - suspended by cables beneath a helicopter - makes it way through a downtown area.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a smart and/or intelligently written thriller, your search will not end with this picture. Although Sena obviously knows how to stage all of those stunts and action, he and Woods need to learn a thing or two about basic storytelling, character construction and development, and writing dialogue that isn't laughably bad.

While I suppose the filmmakers should get some credit for attempting to make a sophisticated thriller where allegiances are never certain, their effort doesn't really work that well. Certain events and characters aren't explained well enough, or at all, and the motivation regarding the latter often seems haphazard when not entirely questionable.

The worst part of the film is its dialogue, particularly as delivered by John Travolta ("Lucky Numbers," "Battlefield Earth") who's doing the hip, but volatile villain thing again. Forced to speak some awful lines - particularly when explaining his motives and delivering some silly, late in the game exposition - Travolta unleashes some true howlers. That's a shame considering how the film starts with that Tarantino-inspired speech, but that's about the extent of anything resembling good writing.

As that villain, Travolta is okay, but he clearly can't transcend the mediocre character construction, motivation and ensuing development. Hugh Jackman ("Someone Like You," "X-Men") doesn't fare a great deal better as the former computer hacker who reluctantly agrees to work for the villain. Although the actor brings a certain likableness to the character, he's saddled with a clichéd and well-worn subplot where his character wants to get back with his young daughter.

One of the biggest disappointments comes from Halle Berry ("Bulworth," "Why Do Fools Fall In Love") who tries to pull off one of those nebulous characters that's supposed to keep us guessing with whom she's ultimately allied. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on your point of view), the only thing most viewers will wonder is whether she'll eventually show us the "full Monty" after appearing in skimpy underwear in one scene and topless in another.

There's no compelling reason for the nudity and/or scanty attire from a story perspective, and it only comes off as an effort to titillate the target audience and/or perhaps a desperate measure to revive a flagging film career. Beyond all of that, Don Cheadle ("Traffic," "Boogie Nights") competently delivers the goods as usual, but both Vinnie Jones ("Snatch," "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") and Sam Shepard ("All the Pretty Horses," "The Right Stuff") are wasted and otherwise unremarkable in their respective roles.

Halfway decent at times but ridiculous and ineffective at others, the film may have a decent array of elaborate action sequences, but they alone can neither make nor carry a picture. Sure to be a hit among some members of its target audience, "Swordfish" will come off feeling like a beached fish to others, deserving only to be thrown back in before it stinks up the place. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 4, 2001 / Posted June 8, 2001

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