Millennial Malaise 52: Swordfish

In Which Hollywood Only Makes Shit.

A lot of the movies we have covered in this series have been concerned with aesthetics. We talked about how Run Lola Run turns its razor sharp style into its themes, how films like Hackers thrive on their archived looks, and why we relish the texture of productions that are different than our own. This series has also highlighted the evolution of aesthetics moving from the beginning of the 90’s to the turn of the century, and how successive important projects (like  Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and The Matrix) chart that change.

This all to say that by the time 2001 rolled around films looked much different than they did just five years earlier. Gone we’re the blaring solid color neons of the previous decade. In there place was a world of nauseating saturation. Of greens and oranges bleeding through the celluloid. And the tech advancements of the time were added as well, you couldn’t miss a big blockbuster spectacle in the early aughts that didn’t love bullet time and CG enhanced fireworks. A fine film of Nu-Metal gunk stuck to many of these projects, and that’s how we got things like the Limp Bizkit Mission: Impossible theme.


This evolution also lead to the befuddled mess of Swordfish. A film that is structured like oh so many of the tech thrillers from the precious decade, but gussied up with the aggro paint job of early 00’s aestheticism. This is Hackers by the way of Limp Bizkit presents Mission: Impossible. Swordfish is jumbled mess of ideas, a stew of clashing tones and ideology, and just distressingly outmoded. It’s all macho posturing, chest pumping, women leering, explosions. Director Dominic Senna tries so desperately to be cool that he winds creating a misbegotten disaster instead.

Senna and company seem to bundle all the hits of the 90’s into one delirious ride. You see it’s a bit like Heat, there’s a complicated bank robbery that needs to go down, and the cops are chasing the robbers and vise-versa. It’s a bit like The Matrix with its suits and slo-mo. It’s a bit like Hackers with its sexy computer people, and so much more.

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Criminal mastermind Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) has the perfect plan, but he needs the best hacker in the world to pull it off. Thus enters Stanley (Hugh Jackman) a ripped layabout who bemoans the loss of his daughter in his divorce. But opportunity comes knocking when Ginger (Halle Berry) offers him an envelope of money to join the criminal crew. As this is all going down The Feds lead by Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle) track the group down. Then through many convolutions the robbery transpires with many hitches, and our heroes are successful, or are they?

You see Senna knows you’ve seen other movies, in fact he needs you to have seen other movies. Because his whirligig of style is dependent on the familiarity of tropes and genre conventions, a move that almost dooms the film from the start. Swordfish constantly, and insistently, compares itself to better films. Take the infamous opening monologue from Travolta. A move that consciously recalls his work in the wordy hyper-pop world of Tarantino. The whole thing is a speech about movie making, peppered with profanity and faux wisdom.

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“Realism; not a pervasive element in today’s modern American cinematic vision,” muses Gabriel, “Take Dog Day Afternoon, for example. Arguably Pacino’s best work, short of Scarface and Godfather Part 1, of course. Masterpiece of directing, easily Lumet’s best.” So the stakes are set by our main character directly to the camera. This is a heist film, but it gets muddled after that. The following sequences are far from realistic, indulging in every trick that a camera can pull. So are we supposed to think this is how the movie should work. That it runs with the concern and pathos of the New Hollywood. Not at all, but it makes the movie seem like its in on the joke.

A joke that I guess is supposed to be a sleight of hand move. Distract you in a manner so that the audience can’t sniff out the twists. See Senna wants the viewer to think that Gabriel’s grand plan is to swerve from the structure of Dog Day, skip the plane and just focus on the flying bus/helicopter duo that seems to be the grand scheme. But it isn’t, because Gabriel is his own Houdini, and contrives a way to sneak out involving subterfuge, body doubles, and Ginger lying about her position in the scheme.  By the end it turns out everything was just a distraction for Gabriel to get his money.

In fact the whole movies feels like a distraction. A piece of construction that has no center and must wave shiny things to keep the audience from getting bored or irritated. What else can explain the flippant violence against innocents, who are constantly shot at or blown up with explosives. Or the truly bizarre sexual energy of the film, one that radiates stupidity rather than seduction. Yeah Jack gets a blow job while hacking, yeah we see Halle Berry’s boobs, but it all feels offhanded, like studio notes inserted to liven up the whole affair. It would certainly go a long in explaining an extended sequence in which Jackman and Cheadle tumble down a hill.

Never the less Swordfish tries to shoot its shot, smashing up its grandiose action with techno tuned montages of people slamming hands on keyboards. Its delirious, and almost approaches charming, but its worldview is so nasty and regressive that the fun just kind of gets sapped away. It takes what should have been amusing about the past decade of B-Thrillers and mashes them up into blown out pulp. So instead we get a movie wearing other movies like an ill fitting suit, trying so hard to impress you that one can’t help but notice all the ways it doesn’t work.

Odds and Ends

  • Senna is kind of the king of pre 9/11 actioners with both this and Gone in 60 Seconds to his name.
  • You can tell the tone of this movie by the fact Travolta highly regards Scarface. Big dorm room energy there.
  • This movie has a truly bizarre score. When the classic techno or Nu-Metal isn’t gracing the screen its usually replaced with jazz trumpet. As if that will class things up a bit.
  • Early X-Men reunion with Berry and Jackman, excellent representative stars of their era.
  • Honestly this is all second rate Tony Scott, who is one of the few people who can off the kinetic blown out aesthetic.

Next week our current Malaise concludes with a look at the Matrix sequels, among other things.