- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

John Travolta in demonic or menacing guises has never been my idea of a high time. "Swordfish" introduces him as a terrorist movie buff, Gabriel Shear, pontificating about "Dog Day Afternoon" while holding a score of hostages in a Los Angeles bank. These victims have been booby-trapped with explosive devices that can blow them and unwary bystanders to smithereens.

Shear´s armorer also has come up with a variant on land mines that make the poor hostages doubly lethal and give the prologue a make-believe slaughter that scatters debris and casualties for a city block.

The insufferably convoluted, predatory and harebrained plot seems to advocate international vigilantism while waxing polemical for bad measure in the final reel. Ostensibly some kind of renegade from the CIA, Shear plans to abscond with a secret government slush fund of $9.5 billion, allegedly the result of a suspended Drug Enforcement Administration operation that accumulated oodles in unsavory profit.

Why Shear needs to collect hostages and taunt the feds while executing his perfect crime remains a puzzle, because a good deal of footage is predicated on the idea that he needs to coax master hacker Stanley Jobson, played by Hugh Jackman, into cracking the codes that will permit the furtive loot to be diverted to numbered accounts hither and yon. As far as one can see, the deed might be accomplished without all the conspicuous sadism and bravado.

Mr. Travolta´s shameless sidekick, Halle Berry as a seductress named Ginger, gets custody of the movie´s earliest whore-mongering pretensions while trying to vamp Mr. Jackman away from his place of exile, Midland, Texas. Messing with an FBI surveillance system supposedly has condemned Jobson to a life of poverty and isolation in a grimy oil field.

"Swordfish" reflects the toxically trashy mind-set of producers Joel Silver and Jonathan D. Krane and director Dominic Sena, associated last year on "Gone in 60 Seconds." While auditioning for his new paymasters, Jobson has to gain access to something or other within 60 seconds, typing with a gun at his head and a harlot at his crotch. Fortunately, the guy seems to hack at about 10,000 words a minute, with no typos.

When left alone later with a keyboard, Jobson demonstrates that he´s no snob with codes and numbers and stuff; he simulates the moves of a typical disco DJ while playing those keys.

The screenwriter, Skip Woods, appears to believe he has woven ambiguities as well as treacheries into the tawdry fabric. For example: Is Shear as bad as he acts? Could Ginger be a fed? Doesn´t Jobson deserve custody of his beloved little girl, Holly, especially because her embittered mother is now the consort of a porn producer?

The unintentional puzzlers are more diverting. When did Shear and Jobson take the stunt-driving lessons that permit them to elude potential assassins during a high-speed chase? Why couldn´t the English menace Vinnie Jones, more or less wasted as a Shear henchman, be pressed into duty as the gang´s driving instructor? It would give him a scene, if nothing else.

Don Cheadle plays an intrepid federal agent, Roberts, dedicated to clapping all of them behind bars. Mr. Cheadle allows a witness to be assassinated under his nose in an interrogation room and seems to pay no professional penalty. Another sign of FBI slackness? Why bother to show his team surveilling Shear´s gang if this advantage is just going to be canceled out by a far-fetched reprisal, Shear´s murder of an unscrupulous senator? Wouldn´t Shear be a smarter manipulator if he avoided massive complications such as congressional homicide, hostage standoffs and the aerial transfer of a hostage bus from street to skyscraper?

The guilty secret of "Swordfish" is that it never makes a particle of sense and would be easier to sustain and perhaps enjoy as something frankly ridiculous from the outset.

Given the lives he sacrifices and the wreckage he causes, Shear is never going to merit anything that resembles grudging admiration. It would make more sense to vote the Irving Thalberg Award to Joel Silver. You can rely on his low instincts to put fannies in the seats of the multiplexes.

Shear´s notions of honorable terrorism have no discernible justification.

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