John Travolta plays Gabriel Shear, the quintessential secret agent.
photo: Courtesy Continental Films
Running time: 90 minutes
Starring: John Travolta
Rating: 7 out of 10
Playing at selected cinemas
Hacker Stanley Jobson is fresh from an 18-month jail sentence for taking down the FBI's computer system. He will be sent back to prison if he is caught touching a computer. One day a beautiful woman appears at his trailer door offering him $100,000 to meet her employer. By the evening he is involved in one of the most glamorous and technologically-advanced heists in the history of the US, organised by a deranged terrorist or a fanatical anti-terrorist, he can't tell which.
If the premise of Swordfish sounds confusing that's because it is confusing. The entire film is like a haunted house, with secret rooms, double mirrors and traps doors around every corner. It's an awesome spectacle, but demanding audiences will be disappointed that crucial plot details behind the illusions are never revealed.
John Travolta plays Gabriel Shear, the quintessential secret agent, or double agent, or spy, or puppet master, equally at ease drinking tequila in underground night clubs and pumping rounds of artillery into oncoming traffic atop a Ferrari convertible. Early on he has a man killed inside FBI headquarters and later boasts of buying nuclear warheads for $40 million each. "If I buy twenty I get a discount."
Halle Berry plays Ginger, the cagey seductress working for Shear or playing him somehow. She lures Jobson into hacking for them with a sly mixture of flirtation and allusions to his daughter, whom he will need a decent lawyer (i.e. money) to get back. In one scene she whispers that she is a DEA agent and suddenly Jobson doesn't know who or what to believe.
The movie does a good job of setting the stage for ruses and double crosses. At one point Shear lets on that he is stealing the money to fund a vigilante group that fights US-hostile organisations. Minutes later he delivers a monologue about Harry Houdini and the art of misdirection. An earlier conversation about Hollywood, hostages and the movie Dog Day Afternoon is also an excellent foreshadowing device.
What Jobson is actually supposed to do, however, seems deliberately vague. There is a lot of talk of encryption systems, worms and interfaces, but no explanation of why they have to physically enter the bank. And why also, if he is hacking into bank accounts, do fancy prisms and diamond shapes appear on the screen rather than lines of code?
It is almost as if the screenwriters sketched an outline to the script but never filled in the details - how fake deaths were pulled off, where alliances lay, how and why operation swordfish was started. Eventually the story loops back to the film's first scene - which was set four days ahead of the following scene - but in the process skips much of the action that leads to a climactic showdown with the FBI.
Operation Swordfish is fun while it lasts but about 45 minutes too short.