Rated R - Running Time: 1:38 - Released 6/8/01

The opening scene of Dominic Sena's action film Swordfish features a monologue by its star, John Travolta, on the lack of realism in Hollywood movies, discussing in particular how Sidney Lumet's 1975 smash Dog Day Afternoon, though admittedly an excellent film, was somewhat lacking in believability. This takes immense huevos on the part of screenwriter Skip Woods, who wrote Swordfish, because it immediately calls the issue of screenplay credibility into question and puts us on guard to look for flaws in his own text. (Especially since Dog Day Afternoon won the Oscar for screenwriting.) Luckily, Woods's sophomore effort, after his 1998 debut Thursday, is not as riddled with plot discrepancies as it could be; in fact the scene immediately following Travolta's diatribe on cinematic realism is probably the best scene in the film. What is unfortunate is that it takes place within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, and what follows is pretty much typical action/adventure fare, though reasonably well-written and occasionally clever in dialogue. It is, however, no Dog Day Afternoon.

Rather than beginning at the beginning, Swordfish begins in the middle, at the climax of a tense hostage situation instigated by cool criminal genius Gabriel Shear (Travolta), at a big-city bank where he has wired 20 or so hostages with explosives and shrapnel, making them "the world's biggest walking claymore mines." The lead investigator on the case, Agent A.D. Roberts (Don Cheadle), has assembled a SWAT team, but his hands are tied since Gabriel has assured him that he will detonate the explosives if anything in his plan goes wrong. His plan, as we learn through the main flashback portion of the film, is to hack into the U.S. government's forgotten "Swordfish" program (in which 9½ billion dollars have been stockpiled) and download the money into his private account. To do this, he hires super-hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), with the promise of 1) a huge amount of money, 2) getting custody of his beloved daughter away from his estranged porn actress ex-wife, and 3) possibly being able to touch the curvaceous, chocolate-brown body of Halle Berry.

That last one is really the clincher.

This film is perhaps on the higher end of the scale when it comes to lobotomized action blow-up movies; its premise is positioned on the precipitous edge of credibility, but Woods's dialogue can at least be swallowed without too many stomach cramps. Director Sena, meanwhile, who directed last year's painfully stupid but action-packed Gone In 60 Seconds, certainly knows how to rachet up the tension with spectacular helicopter shots, high-speed car chases, and fiery explosions. The film's cinematic set piece, involving a bus full of panicked citizens being lifted by a huge helicopter to the top of a skyscraper, with its tethers snapping and law officers in hot pursuit, is wildly exciting even if it is far-fetched to the point of laughability. I couldn't help thinking how realistic Dog Day Afternoon is compared to this . . .

Travolta and Jackman are both in full action-hero mode, although I found it amazing that Jackman's Stanley has become such a good computer hacker without seeming to know how to use a keyboard. I was far more impressed with his ability to maintain a 3-day beard throughout the proceedings. Berry, on the other hand, is sexy, cool, and smart as Gabriel's associate and possible double-agent; she could be the best human aspect of the film. All in all, in the great restaurant of action film entrées, I would grudgingly recommend the Swordfish, but only if they're out of Dog. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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