June 8, 2001
These next two Summer Flings will not be wannabe tentpole Happy Meal type movies with action figures, but adult-aimed studio action thrillers that arrived with a thud. SWORDFISH was heavily hyped as the movie where Halle Berry (THE CALL), not long before winning her Oscar for MONSTER’S BALL, appeared topless. But the star is her fellow X-Man Hugh Jackman (THE MISERABLES), suddenly a leading man after the world fell in love with his Wolverine in 2000. He plays Stanley Jobson, legendary hacker who is no longer allowed to touch a computer or visit his daughter Holly (Camryn Grimes, MAGIC MIKE). He’s leaner than we’re used to him now, with an earring and spiky, slightly frosted hair, like an early Tom Jane character. Unlike in REAL STEEL, where he reluctantly formed a relationship with his estranged son, this guy will do anything to get his kid back.
Though an ex-con, Stanley is 100% good guy. We find out, of course, that his big crime was a hacktivism/whistleblower type thing where he planted a virus in an intrusive FBI spying program. (In my opinion Julian Assange and Edward Snowden both fantasize about being Stanley Jobson and this movie is their SCARFACE.) He’s trying to be a good boy now, and is introduced wearing only a towel and hitting golf balls off of his trailer in an oil field in Midland, Texas. A mysterious stranger named Ginger (Berry) shows up knowing everything about him and sexily harasses him into flying to L.A. to meet her boss, Gabriel Shear (John Travolta, BROKEN ARROW).
First we hear another best-hacker-in-the-world (Rudolf Martin, THE COLLECTOR) describe Gabriel: “He exists in a world beyond your world. What we only fantasize, he does. He lives a life where nothing is beyond him.” We see this incredible expensive-suit-wearing, soul-patched uberman pulling up to a club in an expensive sports car of some kind, being let right in, a bevy of women immediately surrounding him. This was after BATTLEFIELD EARTH, so I’d say Travolta was on the downswing from his post-PULP FICTION resurgence. Though they give him some cringe-inducing fake-Tarantino-isms (more on that later) this was a couple years after THE MATRIX, so their idea of making him cool was for him to be a mysterious leader in a subculture of hacker/electronic dance music aficionados. The score is by Christopher Young (HELLRAISER) with three-time “Best Trance DJ” DJ Award Winner Paul Oakenfold.
Stanley reluctantly takes Gabriel’s offer for a job apparently involving some kind of bank robbery happening four days later in an opening flash-forward. Ginger is basically the honeypot, looking amazing and acting suggestive to lure him in – sticking her butt out to hit a golf ball, finding reasons to mention his dick. From the looks of this shot shortly after she kneels down in front of him “to tie his shoes,” it works.
These people use sex as a weapon – when they first meet him they tell him he has one minute to break into a government database, and point a gun to his head and have a woman he was just introduced to blow him. According to Wikipedia, that actress, Laura Lane, went on to become the President of Global Public Affairs at UPS and a member of the Business Advisory Council for Africa. One day she’s playing demeaning bit parts like this and “Hot Girl” on some TV show I never heard of, the next she’s being interviewed for the Frontline special Ghosts of Rwanda about her efforts as a diplomat during the genocide. Truth really is stranger than fiction, huh?
Well, not really in this case, because the IMDb profile and articles about the UPS lady give different birth places, and their photos don’t really look like the same person. I’m pretty sure somebody mistakenly combined two separate Laura Lanes into one Ultra-Laura-Lane.
Still, VERY unprofessional job interview in this scene, in my opinion. But this was before yelp and stuff so they get away with it.
Ginger convinces Stanley that it’s a quick job that can pay his legal bills, and he doesn’t have to feel bad about it. Probly similar to the pitch they gave Berry to get her in the movie – she reportedly got them to add an extra half million onto her $2 million. That’s the most she’d been paid at that point, but still bullshit because Travolta got $20 million! Even the Church of Scientology would have to admit that Berry’s brief sunbathing scene was a bigger draw than Travolta.
Ginger does get a little more complex later, and Berry’s presence (I’m not being suggestive here, I’m serious) does makes the movie more enjoyable, so I’m not mad at her for taking the paycheck.
The movie has a pretty flashy look with digitally enhanced colors (mostly green). We know it takes place either in L.A. or the Middle East, because some of it is tinted almost as yellow as THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS. The opening credits are in jittery VHS for no apparent reason but as a whole it’s not stylized in a very intrusive way, like Avid-farts or confusingly fast editing, so it works.
SWORDFISH has a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and a reputation for being terrible. Right at the opening I understood that reputation because it had me thinking “I hate this movie!” in about four seconds. It starts with Gabriel delivering a smarmy monologue about movies:
“You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make shit. Unbelievable, unremarkable shit. Now I’m not some grungy wannabe filmmaker that’s searching for existentialism through a haze of bong smoke or something. No, it’s easy to pick apart bad acting, shortsighted directing, and a purely moronic stringing together of words that many of the studios term as prose. No, I’m talking about the lack of realism. Realism. Not a pervasive element in today’s modern American cinematic vision.
“Take DOG DAY AFTERNOON, for example. Arguably Pacino’s best work. Short of SCARFACE and GODFATHER PART I, of course. Masterpiece of directing, easily Lumet’s best. The cinematography, the ac–”
BLAH BLAH BLAH. Motherfucker, PULP FICTION was seven years ago, you’ve had enough time to figure out that fake Tarantino dialogue is the worst shit in the world. I dare any human to watch this and not want him to shut the fuck up as he spends the opening four minutes explaining his fake edgy, pseudo-intellectual theory that the DOG DAY robber would’ve gotten away with it if he started executing the hostages right away. And some other guys argue that it wouldn’t work because “audiences like happy endings” and “it’s a morality tale.”
And then OH MY GOD IT ZOOMS OUT AND THOSE ARE FBI AGENTS HAVING THIS INSUFFERABLE FILM STUDENT CONVERSATION WITH HIM AND A SWAT TEAM HAS HAD HIM AT GUNPOINT THIS ENTIRE TIME! Hats off to these officers for having the discipline and professionalism not to shoot him as soon as they realized he was trying to do a QT thing and that it was supposed to be ironic for a shitty studio movie to open by calling studio movies shitty and that it was setting up that he was gonna get away at the end and that it would be so fuckin subversive you would get the vapors in your pants.
He doesn’t actually try that tactic of killing the hostages, though. Instead one of the cops gets trigger happy and shoots somebody, and stupidly tries to pull the hostage away even though it has been established that everyone understands that she’s wearing a bomb vest that when she leaves the bank will explode and shoot huge ball bearings into everybody (which happens in Bullet-Time-esque show-off-vision). So, whichever officer that was is not included in my above praise.
Luckily this pointless meta thread about happy endings is mostly abandoned, save for a few dumb callbacks and a SUGARLAND EXPRESS namedrop (oh wow, that’s so cool, there’s this other writer I like who also saw some movies from the ’70s, you should check him out).
But as far as mostly routine, only slightly quirky potboilers go – honestly it’s watchable. Its idea of cool hacker culture is goofy in a way I can enjoy, especially now that it’s dated. For this type of movie I think it’s a compliment to say that there are a few ludicrous plot twists that keep it from going where you expect.
The action is not great but at least kind of novel: Stanley jumps down a steep cliff and there’s a long sequence of stuntment just rolling through dust. And then the big trailer moment is a bus full of hostages being carried around by a helicopter, that was kind of amusing. (Yes, there’s a part where some uptight people in an office building receive a surprise bus crash during their meeting.) Also there’s a big car chase where Jackman has to take the wheel so Travolta can utilize his Woo training.
The end (SPOILER) is a little weird because Stanley blows up Gabriel’s helicopter with a rocket launcher and then he and Don Cheadle go to identify the body at the morgue and Stanley realizes that it’s actually a dummy and seems mad about it but doesn’t say anything. I don’t really get it.
Oh yeah, I didn’t even mention that Don Cheadle (RUSH HOUR 2, HOTEL RWANDA) plays the agent who arrested Stanley and is chasing Gabriel. Not one of his great characters, but elevates the movie with his charisma. Drea de Matteo (‘R XMAS) is in it briefly as Stanley’s alcoholic porn star ex-wife. The recently departed Sam Shepard plays an evil senator and while this is a totally generic bad guy character and obviously not the type of thing he was respected for, it’s clear how perfect he was for that type of character and it’s cool that he could get a reliable paycheck while making any movie a little better. A fair exchange.
It’s also worth noting that Vinnie Jones (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN by Bradley Cooper) is in here as a henchman. This is only his fourth movie and it seems like he’s not gonna have any dialogue, but then near the end they seem to remember that they put him there for a reason and he should have some parts where he does something. There’s a part where he tells Stanley he’ll see him later, which would seem like an in-joke if there was some way to have known he’d be joining Jackman and Berry five years later in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND.
Director Dominic Sena started in the ’80s as a hotshot music video director and co-founder of Propaganda Films with David Fincher and some other guys. Maybe his best known video was “Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson (her most Michael-esque video, I think).
And I have some good news, you guys. Sena also directed the video for “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper, the song that represents Rocky Balboa’s thought process as he goes for a long drive after the death of Apollo Creed in ROCKY IV, both the movie and the stage musical*.
Also, it turns out there is video for “Top Gun Anthem” by Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens. Sena directed that too and I think you should watch this.
Anyway, he likes warehouses and light beams.
Propaganda produced Sena’s feature film debut, KALIFORNIA, which I remember being the movie that made me realize Brad Pitt was an interesting actor and not just the dreamboat he’d been hyped as up to that point. But I haven’t seen it since the ’90s. It wasn’t very successful, and Sena didn’t direct another feature until GONE IN 60 SECONDS in 2000, quickly followed by this the next year. Since then he’s scaled down a little, only doing WHITEOUT (2009) and SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011).
This is the second produced screenplay by Skip Woods, who had written and directed THURSDAY starring Thomas Jane in 1998. At the time I thought that was a worthless Tarantino copycat (that review is vicious!) but it was so long ago I can’t be sure I wasn’t being too hard on it. Since then Woods has been involved in a string of mediocre or disappointing movies: HITMAN, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (arguably the weakest of all X-Men films), THE A-TEAM, A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (the only DIE HARD that in my opinion was never made and does not exist in any form please forget you even read its title here because you didn’t). But I definitely have a soft spot for SABOTAGE, so I can’t write him off entirely, and I should watch HITMAN: AGENT 47 so I’ve seen all his movies.
In 2013, Woods’ college friend Rob Thomas (not the Veronica Mars one) sued, claiming to have co-written all his screenplays without receiving a fair cut. The suit was settled.
Well, at least they don’t have to fight over merchandising cash. There wasn’t a comic book or anything. But there was a tie-in with Heineken. When Stanley’s living in the trailer he doesn’t have much food in his little fridge, but he has Heineken in both bottle and can.
I thought it was supposed to be chosen as a cheap working man’s beer, but the advertisements portray it as part of Gabriel’s high roller lifestyle where nothing is beyond him.
One could question my inclusion of SWORDFISH in the Summer Flings. It did open at #1, beating out other newcomers EVOLUTION and Disney’s ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, and it made $147 million worldwide, more than its (surprisingly large) reported budget of $102 million. But it seems to me it bounced right off of the popular consciousness, leaving only a slight scuff in the shape of a punchline either having to do with Berry’s boobs or overall artistic suckiness.
It’s okay I guess.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.