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Should I Watch..? 'Swordfish' (2001)

Updated on April 5, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster
Film's poster | Source

What's the big deal?

Swordfish is an action crime thriller film released in 2001 and is largely famous for including Halle Berry's first topless scene. Directed by Dominic Sera, the film stars Berry, John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Don Cheadle and centres on a computer hacker forced into stealing vast sums of money from the US Government. Despite harsh criticism when it was first released, the film did go on to make a small profit at the box office. The movie contains numerous references to well-known IT people such as the author of the Linux operating system Linus Torvalds and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Bill Joy among others. In spite of its desire to be taken seriously as a techno-thriller, in reality the film is a sequence of action scenes linked by Travolta's charismatic playboy baddie.


2 stars for Swordfish

What's it about?

Stanley Jobson is a washed-up computer hacker, having been imprisoned two years ago by FBI Agent J.T. Roberts. Although out on parole, he is forbidden to even touch a computer while his ex-wife Melissa has sole custody of their daughter Holly, thanks to a restraining order against Stanley. Then one day, Stanley is approached by Ginger Knowles who wishes him to meet and work her employer, Gabriel Shear. With nothing to lose, Stanley agrees to meet him for a $100'000 fee.

Passing Gabriel's initial test, Stanley discovers that he is to be paid $10 million to create a software program to infiltrate Government systems in order to steal $9.5 billion from a slush fund. With Agent Roberts looking into Stanley's current whereabouts, Stanley must act fast before Shear loses his patience. But the FBI are never far behind and after Ginger reveals herself to Stanley as an undercover DEA agent, the stakes couldn't be any higher...


What's to like?

Fans of Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay films will be in their element here as Swordfish crams a fairly large amount of action into its 99 minute lifespan. The opening set-piece, featuring a café blowing up, is shot using the already hackneyed trick known as Bullet Time first seen in The Matrix but remains an impressive way to start the film. The film has a cartoony feel to the violence - I'm fairly certain, for example, that simply shooting the front of an SUV will not cause it to flip over like a Chinese gymnast before exploding.

The unrelenting pace of the picture might make following the film a little daunting but there are enough twists and turns to justify sticking with it to the end. In a film dominated by Travolta chomping his way through the scenery like Pac-Man, Berry does well to stand out as Ginger although her much-heralded topless scene felt tacked on and completely unnecessary. Jackman also acquits himself as Stanley even if he doesn't exactly look like a computer hacker.

Berry's enigmatic Ginger is one of the film's few redeeming features
Berry's enigmatic Ginger is one of the film's few redeeming features | Source

Fun Facts

  • The opening explosion, which was the most complex shot in Warner Bros history, involved the use of 135 synchronised still cameras. If just one of them failed, the entire scene would have to be reshot.
  • The origins of the word 'swordfish' being a password stems from the 1932 Marx Brothers comedy Horse Feathers where Groucho is attempting to enter a speakeasy. It has also been used as a password in TV shows as diverse as Mad Men and Disney's Recess, amongst others.
  • This is the second time Travolta refers to Dog Day Afternoon in a movie after he impersonated Al Pacino's performance when Travolta starred in Saturday Night Fever. Incidentally, Swordfish was released in 2001 - which is a reference to the name of the club where Travolta goes to dance in Saturday Night Fever.

What's not to like?

In trying to out-do Jerry Bruckheimer, director Dominic Sena has forgotten to include a movie amid the chaos and ear-shattering sound effects. The explosions have to be bigger, the effects have to be louder, the nudity has to be more shameless and the film's plot is possibly third or fourth on Sena's list of things to have on screen. You know things have gone wrong in a heist movie when the baddies attempt to make their escape in a bus suspended underneath a helicopter. Now I'm no international criminal mastermind (honest, guv'nor!) but even I can think of several safer, speedier and more conspicuous ways of fleeing the crime scene.

Travolta dominates the movie with his ridiculous character who looks like a cross between Austin Powers and Dracula. His performance is as outlandish as Gabriel himself but he's not helped by his fellow cast members. Vinnie Jones may be able to play henchmen as well as anyone but he's not exactly blessed in the height department, which does take the edge off. And I had completely forgotten Don Cheadle and Sam Shepard were in the movie until I had to research and write this very article! But the film's real trick is actually describing itself in Travolta's opening monologue and I love it when a film does this...

"You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make s***. Unbelievable, unremarkable s***... it's easy to pick apart bad acting, short-sighted direction and a purely moronic stringing together of words that many of the studios term as 'prose'."

The TVR Tuscan, used in the film to great effect
The TVR Tuscan, used in the film to great effect | Source

Should I watch it?

Simple-minded and extremely pretentious, Swordfish wishes it was a modern and hi-tech take on classic heist films. Instead, it's an assault on your senses that deafens you with noise and blinds you with needless and ridiculous action. Films like this annoy me because they give the impression that all us viewers demand from a picture are explosions, T&A shots and car chases. That might work for some but personally, I demand much more and Swordfish is found wanting.

Great For: TVR, amnesia sufferers (they'll be as clueless as the rest of us), forgiving action fans

Not So Great For: intelligent viewers, the hacking community, common sense

What else should I watch?

If all you want in a movie is Halle Berry delivering the goods then might I suggest Monster's Ball where she puts in the best performance of her career to date as a recently widowed mother finding a sole-mate in Billy Bob Thorton's racist prison warden. If all you want in a movie is Hugh Jackman showing off his physique then might I suggest X-Men Origins: Wolverine where he spends an awful lot of time without a shirt on. And if you want a decent Hugh Jackman movie then either X-Men or Logan should be top of your list.

Hackers have been waiting a long time to see their world portrayed accurately in the movies but so far, without much luck. Yes, we might have moved on from the likes of The Lawnmower Man and its hilarious and out-dated (or ill-informed) portrayal of cyberspace but anyone looking for a decent, realistic hacking movie should let us all know because I can't think of one.

Main Cast

John Travolta
Stanley Jobson
Hugh Jackman
Gabriel Shear
Halle Berry
Ginger Knowles
Don Cheadle
Agent J.T. Roberts
Vinnie Jones
Sam Shepard
Senator James Reisman
Drea de Matteo

Technical Info

Dominic Sena
Skip Woods
Running Time
99 minutes
Release Date (UK)
27th July, 2001
Action, Crime, Thriller
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Actor (Travolta), Worst Actor Of The Decade (Travolta)*

* Nominated at the 2010 ceremony. Nominated for "Swordfish", "Battlefield Earth", "Old Dogs", "Domestic Disturbance" and "Lucky Numbers"

© 2015 Benjamin Cox


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