Reviewed 2001-11-06: This was strange to watch in the wake of 9-1-1 -- almost as strange as seeing the World Trade Center in the background while re-watching Men in Black (1997), and even seeing the brand-new structure in the film Three Days of the Condor (1975). In fact, I was recently re-watching 1998's Enemy of the State (OK, I like Will Smith -- almost as much as he likes himself, according to his Playboy interview for December 2001).
That last film had in its background a controversy over passing an act in Congress authorizing pretty much what Congress has just passed: unrestricted government wiretaps and e-mail surveillance on ordinary citizens in the name of national security. In the background of Swordfish is the crime of a computer hacker (Hugh Jackman, last seen in 2000's X-Men) who was sent to prison for cracking into the Carnivore e-mail surveillance program. (If only fantasy were reality: to me he would be a hero!)
Anyway, Swordfish thrives on keeping the audience guessing: who are the bad guys and who are the good guys? Like Three Days, the plot hinges on accepting that there is a mini-intelligence network inside the CIA that acknowledges no restraints on its powers to fight terrorism. Terrorism. You see how weird it was to watch a film made well before 9-1-1? And I guess the role of Gabriel (John Travolta) justifies his actions, along the lines of ends justifying means, when he takes hostages during a bank heist and one of them gets blown up in the process: "If you could end a bigger evil by committing a smaller evil, would you do it?" he seems to be asking. Just what makes him better than terrorists and authoritarian thugs escapes me, though -- just as what may distinguish America from a banana republic once US intelligence and law enforcement agencies get those pesky civil rights under control escapes me. But that's the subject of another rant.
As you can tell, this movie was food for thought. There was about as much brutality as in Pulp Fiction (1994), another Travolta armored vehicle, with about as much justification (that is, I think most of it was gratuitous). The only pleasant thing about watching the film was glimpsing the half-million-dollar boobs of the delectable but mostly superfluous Halle Berry. Yes, that is the premium she reportedly negotiated to appear topless in two or three cutaway shots. But that, too, was gratuitous (nudity), and I'm not one to complain about seeing beautiful breasts!
But I can complain about this film. And I think I just did. (I did have to smile during Travolta's opening monolog: he mentions Dog Day Afternoon as one of Pacino's greatest works; that 1975 film was one of Travolta's first works... as an extra!)
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.