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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Swordfish
Warner Bros. // R // October 30, 2001
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 1, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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On Friday night, as I sat down in my dimly-lit living room, DVD remote in hand, I prepared myself to hate Swordfish. I'm not sure what compelled me to pick up this disc, considering my intense distaste for bombastic action flicks, vertigo-inducing MTV inspired direction, and anything tainted by the presence of the loathsome John Travolta. Director Dominic Sena's résumé didn't settle my nerves much, as he'd helmed innumerable Janet Jackson music videos and last summer's borderline unwatchable remake of H.B. Halicki's 1974 cult classic Gone In 60 Seconds. Yes, Travolta predictably munches on scenery at every given opportunity, the plot is an indecipherable, tangled mess, and brightly lit, oversaturated scenes are frequently blaring with the trendy techno artist du jour, with quick cuts following like clockwork every quarter-second or so. Virtually everything I despise about the genre is present in this single film, yet somehow, inexplicably, I really enjoyed Swordfish.

X-Men's Hugh Jackman stars as Stanley Jobson (no relation to Matt "eeeeeeeezkid" Jobson, captain of the Dark and former sergeant-of-arms of the Clemson University Bowling Team), Wired Magazine's 'Man Of The Year' in 1996. Stanley is fresh out of a two year stint in the slammer for his aggressive but well-intentioned hacker tactics, forbidden to so much as touch a computer and entirely lacking the means to hire the legal muscle necessary to swipe his daughter from her alcoholic porn star mother. This is the cue for Ginger (Halle Berry) to enter stage-left, clad in a revealing red dress and bearing a $10 million offer from her employer. Stanley balks at first, but predictably relents to keep the film's runtime well outside of the fifteen minute mark. The task assigned Stanley by chameleon and self-proclaimed patriot Gabriel Shear (Travolta) revolves around Operation Swordfish, a project from the mid-'80s in which the DEA set up a series of dummy corporations to launder drug money and the like. These companies unexpectedly started making huge piles of money, and the interest drawn on that cash over the past 15 years amounts to somewhere in the hefty range of $9.5 billion. Of course, there wouldn't be any action or intrigue if Stanley could just telnet in using a laptop in Gabe's guest bedroom to grab the loot. Our hacker hero, Gabe, and crew have to get up close and all too personal with the World Banc, replete with hostages and an explosive stand-off against New York's finest.

So much goes on in Swordfish that it's nearly impossible to fully summarize in a single paragraph. No one is who he or she appears to be, and just when it seems as if who's screwing over who has at long last been revealed, there's yet another underlying layer of deception. In some strange way, this tangled mess works to Swordfish's benefit, keeping an artificial momentum rolling even during the many actionless scenes. These sorts of movies rely heavily on visual spectacle, and there are several memorable scenes here, most notably the lengthy 'in media res' hostage crisis that opens the film. The casting was very well done, even though the acting itself isn't particularly memorable. That might seem like a strange statement, but if anyone else had been cast in any of the lead roles, the movie's effectiveness would've dropped by half. As grating as I've found Travolta to be in every film of his I've found myself subjected to in the past ten years, his arrogance and general repulsiveness translate well to Gabriel. Hugh Jackman, despite his clichéd character with clichéd motivations, is star material, and fellow X-Men alum Halle Barry steals a number of scenes, including several in which she's fully dressed. It's remarkable that Swordfish could kick off with its most explosive, elaborate sequence and carry that energy for an additional hour and a half.

It'd be easy to label Swordfish as a guilty pleasure or dismiss it entirely. It's not an exceedingly brilliant film by any stretch of the imagination, and I would have no interest in a sequel or any cookie-cutter movies duplicating the plot and structure. Even though no single element of Swordfish seems remarkable on its own, their combination formed some oddly appealing amalgam. Though Swordfish didn't really tear up the box office, Warner chief Warren Lieberfarb described it as a "highly ownable title", which isn't too terribly far off the mark. As an impulse buy in the $20 range, you could do a lot worse than Swordfish, a decent, not-quite-mindless action flick with a gorgeous visual presentation and a nice number of supplements.

Video: Swordfish, just like virtually every other day/date release from Warner from the past year or so, looks phenomenal, unquestionably bordering on reference quality. As is to be expected from a movie that so recently wrapped up its theatrical run, there are no print flaws or flecks of dust whatsoever in Swordfish's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The stunningly saturated colors don't bleed or smear in the slightest, and black levels and shadow delineation are rock solid. The image is extraordinarily crisp and detailed, not marred by even the faintest amount of aperature correction or any other noticeable haloing. Unlike some movies that go for a similar style of visual flair, Swordfish doesn't sport an obviously digital appearance or find itself appearing flat or two-dimensional. There's precious little to complain about, and the closest I can come is that a handful of distant shots of skyscrapers and other buildings exhibited just a bit of aliasing. Always beautiful and occasionally jaw-dropping, the transfer on Warner's DVD release of Swordfish is top-drawer all the way.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio on Swordfish is fairly aggressive without feeling excessively unnatural or overwhelming. The freeze-frame whirlwind a few minutes in is perfect demo material, with the C-4 explosion and scattering of fifteen pounds of ball bearings making for extremely effective use of surrounds and a foundation-threatening LFE channel. It's also worth nothing that the healthy smattering of techno music and booming effects never intrude on the dialogue in this exceptionally well-balanced mix. There only a few sequences that really gave my system a work out, with the majority of the film being comparatively low-key and anchored towards the front speakers. Though not quite the sort of consistently showcase quality audio I was expecting, Swordfish sounds decent enough throughout and didn't warrant quibbles or complaints of any sort. Warner has also included a Dolby Digital 5.1 track for our amis canadien, along with subtitles in a variety of languages.

Supplements: Director Dominec Sena contributes a solid commentary track that delves thoroughly into the history of the project and the its metamorphisis from a more straight-forward shoot-'em-up to the incrementally more inventive finished product. This sort of information is intermingled with a few technical notes, though Sena frequently falls into the trap of simply describing what's on screen instead of discussing it. Not content to just chat over the film about how the film changed from script to its debut on the silver screen, Sena also provides optional commentary for two alternate endings, including the one scripted and another chucked after some test screenings.

Along with a typically fluffy, insubstantial HBO First Look featurette is a fairly in-depth peek at the effects for the Incredible Flying Bus sequence that closes out the film. The ubiquitous trailer is included as well, along with a slew of DVD-ROM extras I didn't give a look.

Conclusion: Although I typically shy away from action movies, I enjoyed Swordfish far more than I expected. Die Hard it's not, but Swordfish is easily among the best of the genre from the past few years, clawing its way from total mediocrity and managing to be more than a simple guilty pleasure. Swordfish seems as if it'll hold up reasonably well to multiple viewings, and its presentation on DVD is top-notch. The hypersensitive may have a bit of trouble sitting through this film, despite precious little similarity to the events of September 11th, but more reasonable DVD enthusiasts will likely find this disc well worth adding to their collections. Swordfish isn't a tough recommendation, especially considering the reported going price of $16.99 at Best Buy in its first week of release. Recommended.
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