John Travolta revives his “Pulp Fiction” hairdo in an attempt to recapture some of his former cool in “Swordfish,” a half-absorbing, half-ridiculous techno-thriller that often goes too far in search of audience-rousing effects. Mounted in breathlessly stylish fashion, with a great-looking cast enacting a series of intriguing but deliberately ambiguous scenes, Warner Bros.’ first big summer release has the feel of a solid, densely packed script ramped up into a “Matrix”/”Mission: Impossible” wannabe, with increasingly over-the-top results. Brimming with action and intent on keeping the viewer guessing as to the true nature of its principal characters, this should be a muscular if not stellar mainstream performer internationally. The interesting question domestically will be whether opening-weekend auds will be wary of a Travolta starrer after having been burned repeatedly of late; conspicuously, campaign’s artwork has Travolta barely recognizable in the background, with Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman much more prominently featured.
With director Dominic Sena laying on the edgy musicvid visual tropes and tough-guy attitudinizing rather more effectively — and with somewhat more point — than in last summer’s “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” pic is very much of a piece with producer Joel Silver’s recent output: It’s turbo-charged, with hyper-realistic, attenuated slo-mo action shots; features set-pieces of negligible narrative but maximum visceral importance, and boasts a well-meshed multiethnic cast, along with a techno/hip-hip-conscious soundtrack.
Film starts by throwing a slow curveball sure to catch everyone off stride (and one particularly ironic coming from a Hollywood studio film these days). With no ado, we see Travolta sitting in a coffee shop delivering a riff on movies. “You know what the problem with Hollywood is? It makes shit,” he says in a moment that no doubt will be much excerpted in future documentaries. He then proceeds to praise “Dog Day Afternoon” and Al Pacino’s perf in it (a nice echo of Travolta’s “Attica! Attica!” chant in “Saturday Night Fever”), while adding that the film didn’t go far enough and that its hostage-taking plot would play out entirely differently in the current instant-news era.
Travolta’s character, Gabriel Shear, soon is revealed to be the perpetrator of a bank heist himself, and one much more high-concept than that dramatized in “Dog Day.” He and his crew have wrapped 22 hostages in dynamite and ball bearings, SWAT troops and TV cameras are everywhere, and an amazing climactic shot of an explosion, a lateral camera move with carnage seemingly floating in mid-air, will leave auds gaping and anticipating a “Matrix”-like flight from reality.
Gradually, the picture backs off from, and eventually fails to fulfill, these expectations, as it moves from cyberthriller space to more conventional action territory. With the resolution of the hostage crisis left hanging, yarn flips back four days to the airport apprehension, and mysterious murder while under FBI interrogation, of a notorious international computer hacker. At the same time, Ginger (Berry), a cohort of Gabriel’s whose status is equally inscrutable, travels to Texas to “recruit” Stanley Jobson (Jackman), the world’s former No. 1 hacker, now an ex-con forbidden to see his daughter or so much as touch a computer.
First indication of some of the ludicrousness to come is the first meeting between Stanley and swaggering Gabriel. In a private room of a bimbo-festooned nightclub that makes you think you’re watching an Elie Samaha production, Gabriel toys with the bewildered Stanley by having a blonde begin to service him, telling a goon to hold him at gunpoint and ordering him to penetrate a difficult Dept. of Defense computer file within 60 seconds. This combination of elements is not only physically contradictory, if not impossible, but is crude and off-putting, sensational for sensationalism’s sake.
Somehow, Stanley passes this test, making him eligible to earn $10 million by helping Gabriel in an unspecified dark task that involves cracking a government file containing billions in laundered drug money. Although suspicious of Gabriel’s true motives, Stanley signs on, mainly on the promise of being reunited with his daughter.
Anti-government like all great hackers, Stanley hates his FBI nemesis Roberts (Don Cheadle) for having arrested him years back, and is thrown when he spots Gabriel’s apparent girlfriend Ginger with a wire running through her lingerie, prompting a suspicious admission from her that she’s really a DEA agent. It’s just one of her numerous deliberate provocations.
Sena and scripter Skip Woods (who wrote and directed the 1998 Tarantino clone “Thursday”) contort themselves keeping Gabriel’s intentions, allegiances and moral status a secret. Obsessively devoted to the cause of fighting international terrorism, Gabriel has adopted a terrorist’s ruthless methodology in the process, thinking nothing of sacrificing lives for what he deems the greater good, an attitude he shares with a U.S. senator (Sam Shepard) with whom he later has a violent falling-out.
Self-consciously sexed-up and hypoed by violence at regular intervals, pic features a needless and silly nocturnal car chase, but this is nothing compared to the grand finale. With Stanley ready to penetrate the Swordfish bank files, narrative returns to the opening hostage crisis, with Gabriel piling everyone into a bus. Under heavy police escort, the vehicle is proceeding toward LAX and a waiting private plane when it’s snatched aloft by a large helicopter, which then threads through the skyscrapers of downtown L.A. It’s an attempt at a tour-de-force action scene that’s just too preposterous to encourage the suspension of disbelief.
Another instance of the film’s too-muchness is a father–and-endangered-daughter bond that reps one time too many that this device has been trotted out as an automatic emotional hook in an action film; it’s time to give it a rest.
Playing an impossible-to-read man who’s always on top of his game and at least one step ahead of everyone else, Travolta can bring no plausibility to Gabriel, so instead invests him with a large measure of brash, arrogant, manipulative style. He’s wonderful in the opening scene, for instance, dispensing movie-buff opinions, and least appealing when his control-freak character lords it over everyone, drink and smoke in hand. The little vertical mustache on his chin isn’t terribly endearing either. But the hair’s OK.
As the only figure offering a vague human connection, Jackman makes for a vigorous, anxiety-ridden Everyman who just happens to be a computer genius. Berry is hot and mysterious, while Drea de Matteo has a strong solo scene as Stanley’s slatternly ex.
Tech work is slicker than all get-out, with Paul Cameron’s moody widescreen lensing and Jeff Mann’s diverse production design making decisive contributions. Stephen Rivkin’s editing turns the screws as tightly as possible, bringing the picture in at 99 minutes, impressive in light of the two-hour-plus running times of many recent actioners. Contrasted with the solid background score by Christopher Young, electronic/hip-hop soundtrack offerings from music supervisor Paul Oakenfold grate and call undue attention to themselves.