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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2001

Just how low can they go?


Rating: *
Director: Dominic Sena
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

"Swordfish" is one of those nasty Hollywood flicks that, thankfully, we're not likely to see much of in this post-Sept. 11 world. What are we to make of this movie's money shot, which involves crazed rightwing terrorist John Travolta setting off a bomb strapped to the back of a screaming woman hostage? The shot then tracks, in painstaking detail, the carnage that ensues as dozens of steel ball bearings tear through the lines of police, media and rescue workers on the scene. Shrapnel rips through flesh and steel in fetishistic slow-motion (shot on 200 cameras!) as the 1.5-second explosion is drawn out over two minutes.

News photo
John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry in "Swordfish"

Well, now . . . pretty much the only comment you can make about such a scene is that it's shocking it took the recent terrorist attacks to make people realize to how obscene it is to pass off stuff like this as "entertainment." Truly, it is hard to find any redeeming features in "Swordfish," an ignorant, brutal film, full of tactless, cheap thrills, insipid acting and a distressing tendency to glamorize its terrorist archvillain.

How low does it go? Well, having Halle Berry flash her breasts straight to the camera for an entire scene for no good reason is a start. The cake-taker, though, is definitely the scene in which Travolta's bad-guy Gabriel makes super-hacker Stanley (Hugh Jackman, "X-Men") demonstrate his skills by hacking into a classified Pentagon site in under 60 seconds, with a hood holding a gun to his head while a Russian hooker gives him a blow job. (Kiss kiss, bang bang, as Pauline Kael would say . . . )

Director Dominic Sena ("Kalifornia") starts his flick off in a calculatedly postmodern fashion -- I'd call it Tarantino-esque, but that would be an insult to Quentin -- trying to be ironic and "edgy" by having Gabriel declare, straight to the camera, "the problem with Hollywood is they put out shit." He then launches into a film-buff diatribe about how "Dog Day Afternoon" wasn't realistic ("They didn't push the envelope; hostages should have been killed.") before the camera pulls back and we see that Gabriel is in the midst of pulling his own bank heist.

Well, Gabriel does indeed "push the envelope," as per the aforementioned exploded hostage scene, but what he and the filmmakers don't realize is that this is not necessarily a good move. Al Pacino's character in "Dog Day Afternoon" wasn't going to kill anybody unless he had to, which made for an intriguing antihero: We kind of liked him, while worrying that he was blowing it big time.

Travolta's character is just pure evil. He can't wait to blow some people up, and neither can the filmmakers. They do everything they can to make Gab look super-cool, wielding automatic weapons in his Armani suits. He gets all the cool lines, is always one or two steps ahead of his opponents, and -- to top things off -- he gets off scot-free. Are we supposed to be rooting for this guy?

Theoretically, hacker Stanley is the film's conscience, the nice guy who's coerced into working for Gabriel before finally attempting to thwart his nefarious plans. But despite his charisma, Jackman is unable to do much with the script, which seems to have been penned by Beavis and Butthead. His scenes with costar Berry, playing Gabriel's partner-in-crime Ginger, feature such sparkling repartee as, "I'm not here to suck your d**k, Stanley."

Overshadowing Jackman is Travolta, who has long since worn out the welcome-back he received with "Pulp Fiction." His portrayal of evil genius here is without any sense of the parody that infused his similar role in "Face/Off." His "ruthless" dialogue comes off as phony, while his attempts at portraying a highly controlled terrorist result in stiff, birdlike movements and awkward affectations that don't work for a minute. Actually, about the only reason to see this flick is to discover that, yes, John Travolta can sink even lower than he did in "Battlefield Earth."

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