The enjoyably corrupt and thrill-drunk Swordfish opens with the disarming image of John Travolta staring into the camera as he lights up a cigar and invites us to prepare ourselves for yet another piece of Hollywood ”s — -.” Movies, he says, with their vulgar sensation and happy endings, no longer possess ”realism.” He goes on to talk about Dog Day Afternoon and how it might be made today — with a blow-you-away ending in which the robbers get away scot-free. We then proceed to watch that very situation, complete with a spectacularly detonating human hostage bomb; it turns out to be the scene that Travolta’s stylish sociopath is right in the middle of resolving.
The irony of this speech, which sounds as if it could be an excerpt from a Jerry Bruckheimer version of Reservoir Dogs 2, is all too obvious in its smirky hypocrisy: Clearly, the reason that a lot of people will want to see Swordfish is because they like ”s — -” action thrillers with happy endings and zero realism. Yet it’s hard not to get seduced by the way that Travolta, sporting a freaky vertical soul patch and stringy hair that makes him look like an older, sleazier Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, electrifies the space around him with his mellifluous and cocky authority. Give this actor a good speech (and this one is just intricate enough to make you wish that Quentin Tarantino would get off his duff and make Reservoir Dogs 2), and he can be as magnetic as ever. It will come as no surprise that we’re hearing the first and last bit of literate dialogue in Swordfish. The movie is crap, all right, but it’s canny and atmospheric and highly burnished crap.
Travolta’s shadowy, sports-car-driving Gabriel presides over a glibly crooked Mission: Implausible. The film’s hero, Stanley (Hugh Jackman), is a legendary subterranean hacker who is hired by Gabriel to break into a computerized bank file that contains the DEA’s $9.5 billion stash of undercover drug money. Jackman, with his so-who’s-buying-the-next-round? terseness, is like a less charming Mel Gibson who makes you realize that Gibson, by now, has too much charm. Jackman does screw-you nonchalance with expert efficiency, but he’s at his best in the hacker scenes, where Stanley’s gift becomes a nearly athletic extension of his brainpower.
Director Dominic Sena, who made Gone in 60 Seconds, with its rusty chassis of a plot and its full-sizzle labyrinthine car chase, is one of the new trash kings who specialize in staging kicks that are so glossy and picturesque they’re nearly abstract. In Swordfish, Sena teases us with fake human elements, like the daughter that saintly ex-con Stanley is trying to win in a custody battle or his flirtation with Gabriel’s glorified girl Friday (Halle Berry, acting blankly in a preposterous role). Mostly, though, Sena wires the movie for tension. Gabriel’s audition of Stanley might be an entire debased action picture crammed into three minutes, and the film’s socko climax, with a bus swinging through skyscrapers as it dangles from an industrial helicopter, overtops over-the-top. A good movie? Hardly. But more than enough to pass a dog day afternoon.