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"You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make shit," says John Travolta’s well-groomed terrorist, Gabriel Shear, in Swordfish, another big budget summer movie that pokes fun at the notion of filmgoers as wide-eyed innocents. Director Dominic Sena, a former TV and rock video whiz, has a knack for visual style. His earlier films, such as Kalifornia and the car-chase thriller Gone in 60 Seconds, boasted a high-gloss surface with little to say. The same is true for this testosterone-pumped travesty, a high-tech crime caper that doesn’t deliver.

In the opening scene, Gabriel complains that Sidney Lumet’s '70s classic Dog Day Afternoon doesn’t pack enough punch because the robbers don’t finish off any hostages or walk away with the riches. Should we translate this remark as Sena winking at his audience…or is this his personal belief? In many ways, Gabriel, the trigger-happy ex-CIA goon, walks and talks like a big-wig Hollywood studio exec. He struts in designer suits, spouting inane dialogue about Houdini, the master escape artist, and just in case we forget, the film flashes back during the ridiculous climax (which involves an airborne bus stuffed with explosive-ridden hostages).

Supercomputer hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman) our tragic outlaw hero, sulks in a trailer park, shooting golf balls at oil rigs. Fate (or the divine workings of plot device) arrives in the form of Ginger (Hale Berry), a femme fatale who knows all about his porn star wife and the little girl he never gets to visit. Ginger coaxes the cyber-pirate into a scheme to pinch an old DEA slush-fund account that has accumulated billions in interest. Her boyfriend, Gabriel, initiates him into their no-good gang, giving him seconds to type a password into a secret account with a gun to his head and a shiny blonde nuzzling his lap.

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Typing doesn’t lend itself to dramatic scenes, nor do hackers make great movie heroes, if they only sit by the lime-green glow of a pulsating monitor. Sena attempts to pump life into passive moments by having his hero dance to a jittery techno soundtrack while forging through cyberspace. Other scenes that make little sense include a murder through a two-way mirror and a customary car chase with nary a traffic ticket. The script, patched together from hashed-over movie plots, sends a mixed message.

None of the characters are developed beyond a two-dimensional crutch (Gabriel tends to drone on about movies and Ginger always nibbles Twizzlers). Where do women fit in this world of computer-worshipping moguls? Hale Berry doesn’t do much more than appear topless. To entice her into baring her breasts, the filmmakers offered an avalanche of cash. (Sources differ on the exact amount, but she landed somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 as an add-on to her base salary for the nudity, which seems like an awful lot of money to dish out for a few seconds of cleavage.)

Gabriel talks a lot about the "haves" and the "have-nots" (need we guess which category he belongs to?) and the rights of individuals versus the masses. He asks Stanley if he would forfeit the life of one child to save a larger number of people. Stanley replies that nobody has the right to make that choice. In this Darwinian logic, Gabriel is top dog and Stanley, the ordinary man in a ratty T-shirt, seems more like an opposing force than a hero. It’s the classic case of villains stealing the show from less interesting protagonists. In this case, the filmmakers let the bad guys get away with murder…literally. Who cares about the faceless people who suffer in Gabriel’s chain of explosions? To make sure we get enough bang for our bucks, Sena films the blasts in Matrix-style slow motion from multiple angles, depicting banged-up cars and body parts in mid-flight. What’s the point of all this effects-laden razzle dazzle? If we take pleasure in viewing it, does this make us as monstrous as Gabriel? Should we cheer when the businessmen inside a skyscraper get blown to smithereens, just when they’re about to launch a new ad campaign…perhaps for a film not unlike the one we’re watching?

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Movie studio Web site:
Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: Swordfish



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