a movie review

"Swordfish: Style Over Substance"
By Teddy Durgin

Watching the summer box office is a lot like keeping track of the stock market. Already in this up-and-down summer, "Shrek" has cornered the market on humor and family fun. "Pearl Harbor" has a monopoly on explosions and aerial dogfights. And, let's not forget "The Mummy Returns," which bought digital effects low and is still selling out theaters high.

Now, we have "Swordfish" (opening this Friday, June 8), a new action thriller from "Gone in 60 Seconds" director Dominic Sena. This movie is going for a power play on one commodity and one commodity only. Cool.

"Swordfish" is just too damn cool. How cool? It's got John Travolta, finally returning to form as a ruthless government operative carrying out a secret coup. It's got Hugh Jackman as one of the world's top computer hackers, hired by Travolta as part of his ambitious scheme. Jackman sports the same three-day-old beard growth, well-combed chest hair, and steely Eastwood glint that made the hearts of geeks and ladies alike flutter in last summer's "X-Men." "Swordfish" also has Halle Berry as Travolta's temptress partner, who has one of the great topless scenes in movie history (Hey, I'm just reporting what I saw ... don't write letters). And it has Don Cheadle as a tough-as-nails FBI agent out to bring 'em all down.

Not cool enough for ya? Forget all that. Here is why you should go see this film. It has the best opening 10 minutes of any movie, anywhere, this year. It starts with Travolta's charismatic Gabriel, giving a long monologue about how "Hollywood is crap." It's a gutsy way to open a picture. Travolta is almost writing some critics' bad reviews of the film right in the opening minutes. Gabriel goes on to riff about "Dog Day Afternoon," the classic '70s hostage drama starring Al Pacino. He laments about how it would be made today and how bad it would suck. We don't know who he is talking to for quite some time. It's just the camera and Travolta, and it's electric.

Then, Gabriel gets up to leave, revealing that he is in a coffee shop in L.A. The tables have been overturned. The place is in disarray. Jackman's Stanley Jobson is with him. He looks absolutely terrified. We see why. They are surrounded by at least a hundred FBI agents and law enforcement officials. They march out into a downtown intersection toward a bank where Gabriel has wired a dozen or so of his own hostages with explosives. Helicopters fly over head. Snipers on rooftops stand ready. The Feds have every machine gun known to mankind pointed at the two men, but they allow Gabriel and Stanley to walk freely back to their terrified prisoners.

Moments later, something incredible happens. I ain't gonna say what. I will just say that it is one of the most viscerally exciting moments I've ever witnessed in a movie theater. Remember the first time you saw Keanu Reeves dodge bullets in "The Matrix?" Remember the camera panning around him at 360 degrees as the gunfire whizzed by? That special effect was called "Bullet Time." The bar has been raised, my friends. Think Bullet Time, times 20, and that is what the beginning of "Swordfish" delivers!

The first 10 minutes of this movie are so amazing, so balls-to-the-wall cool, that the rest of the film can't help but feel ... I don't know, normal by comparison. Some really cool stuff happens. There are at least three more virtuoso action sequences (and the topless scene) that will likely elicit applause from opening-weekend crowds. But together, they all can't equal the movie's fantastic start.

Fortunately, the acting is top-notch and carries the audience through. Travolta and Jackman, in particular, have a wonderful chemistry together. Gabriel wants Stanley, a penniless ex-con previously busted by Cheadle for hacking into the FBI's computers, to hack into a government mainframe and steal billions of illegal government funds that have been drawing interest since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. Gabriel uses everything from sex (you won't believe the interview that he puts together for Stanley!) to money to cajole the former thief back into the world of high-tech crime. Stanley, meanwhile, wants only to be able to win back custody of his young daughter (Camryn Grimes). A $10 million payday, courtesy of Gabriel, would go a long way toward hiring the best lawyers to handle his case.

"Swordfish" (the title refers to a government operation code name) is all about showing viewers scenes they've seen before dozens of times, then throwing in a different twist. The film knocked me for a loop several times. Other setpieces include an interrogation scene that ends in gunfire, a car chase that concludes with Travolta pulling out one of the biggest friggin' hand cannons ever, and a slow-speed bus chase that turns into an aerial pursuit (don't ask, just see it).

Sometimes, this big action is too ridiculous to take. At one point, Cheadle and his FBI cohorts chase Jackman through an L.A. neighborhood and down a steep, dusty canon, falling head over heels after one another. When they get down to the bottom of the canyon, no one is even remotely hurt (let alone killed). Heck, they're barely out of breath. Even more preposterous, no one has a single speck of dirt on their fancy clothes! Where can I get threads like these?! I put on a sports jacket and slacks, bend down to pet the cat, and I'm ruined for the night! It's Scotch tape and kitty fur for at least two hours.

Do you know how long it's been since I've been able to wear my navy-blue pinstripe? To say nothing of black.

Also absurd is ultimately how much the Travolta character has to predict the final events of the movie falling into place before they actually do. Gabriel is all about slight-of-hand and misdirection. But to pull off a clever trick near the end, he has to correctly predict that Stanley will 1) be with him; and 2) be in a state of mind to do something ... well, quite stunning. It's the same problem I had with the Tim Robbins character in "Arlington Road" two summers ago. The only difference is, "Arlington Road" took its subject matter way too seriously. "Swordfish" knows that it's absurd and gleefully skirts the razor's edge between hard action and parody. Sometimes it gets cut on that edge, but never too deep.

"Swordfish" is far from perfect. But when it's good, it's really good. What's the password? The password is cool!

"Swordfish" is rated R for violence, language, sexuality, and nudity.

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