Swordfish (Sena, 2001)


Ten years ago, in considering whether or not Swordfish was the worst film I had seen that year, I asked “does being offensive necessarily mean being bad?” I did not ultimately select Dominca Sena’s film as my least favorite viewing experience of the year–more on the film that got that designation later in this series–but both in revisiting the film and my review of it, I wonder that I did not. A decade later, my writing looks tentative to me, as though I was afraid the words “moralist” and “critic” never went together. I would like to think that I am more confident in my own voice today, and that I don’t apologize as much for opinions that I perceive may be shared by others with whom I have little in common.

They do have much in common; indeed, they are linked. My criticism is driven not just by my aesthetic preferences but by my worldview. Even so, in the time that has passed since I saw this film, I’ve seen enough examples of politicians and moralists trying to descry the alleged derogatory effects of arts, and using what seemed to me some very alarmist rhetoric in doing so. I hope, then, some of my ambivalence about expressing my own disdain towards some of our more prurient entertainment vehicles might come from some other sources besides my not liking prospective teammates in a political or sociological debate. I hope there might be some humility, somewhere, that tempers the most forceful expressions of conempt.

What I Said Then

I opened a review at a web site called Christian Spotlight on Entertainment with these thoughts about what Swordfish was really about:

There is a scene about a third of the way through “Swordfish” in which the protagonist is held at gun point by a character while being raped by his accomplice in front of a room full of amused spectators. The fact that the character being raped is male and that the sex is oral somehow made it not only okay with the audience I watched the film with (in a north Philadelphia mall theater) but vaguely exciting as well. Don’t let the silly story line about hacking into computers to steal government DEA sting money fool you—this movie is essentially a male rape fantasy constructed for the purpose of getting us to that scene and another in which Halle Berry bares her breasts. The fact that nobody is shown “doing it” just makes it soft porn instead of hard core.

Reading the use, correct I still maintain, of the word “rape” to describe this sequence reminded me of my disappointment at the popularity of another film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that eight years later integrated two viscous rapes into what was being passed off as primarily an entertainment vehicle. They are very different films–Tattoo presents its second rape as an act of revenge–yet both linger on the events, and provide enough external cues of approval (Halle Berry practically winks at the camera while other actresses suck on lollipops with “all in good fun” grins), that subsequent attempts to distance themselves from accusations of pandering (Jackman’s character goes to the bathroom to throw up) ring hollow.

What I Say Now (Spoilers ahead)

Almost three months to the day after Swordfish opened in the United States, images of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 invaded our homes with what novelist John Updike called “the false intimacy of television” and scalded our consciousness with the horrific reality of human suffering that lay at the core of many of our action movie scenarios. In an opening scene, a civilian hostage laden with explosives and shrapnel (and a remote control trigger designed to detonate if she is moved beyond a certain perimeter) is pulled to what she knows will be her imminent death. That death is shown in a sickening tour de forcce, 360 degree, slow motion pan that allows us to revel in the cleverness of the filmmakers while simultaneously losing just a little bit of our humanity. When a bloody ball bearing comes rolling up Jackman’s flattened character the effect is to drag us away from any semblance of the real world and make us feel as though we are safely in that of action movies or graphic novels–where we descry violence by showing its effects in ever more creative and sadistic ways.

Yet for all the familiar reminders of things I found distasteful in the first place, there was one element that struck me as strangely out of place. John Travolta’s villain, Gabriel Shear, is supposedly a rogue operative who is stealing money to fund counter-terrorism activities. His opining to Jackman that we need to make terrorism “unthinkable” is reminiscent of the Sean Connery speech in The Untouchables (“he puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue…”) and made me feel how very, very naive (okay, ignorant) we all were about terrorism, its psychology and goals, and what is unthinkable. It’s hard to know what Sena and screenwriter Skip Woods were going for in this explanation for the robbery aspects of the plot. Were the film five or six years later, one might think there was some not so subtle political criticism going on…much like the Bourne Ultimatum or Munich uses references to 9/11 as a shorthand for personal trauma and the inevitability of blowback for violence leading to more of the same. Coming when and where (sandwiched between an opening monologue that insists viewers want to see the bad guy get away with it and a concluding reveal without the least outward show of ambivalence or irony that shows he has) it does, though, Shear’s patriotic fascism makes less sense than his assurance that the police won’t stop him or that anyone who can hack into the Department of Defense web site in under sixty seconds would be living in a trailer park hard up for cash.

Given how many times it is underscored that Jackman’s motivation centers only around his daughter’s safety and well being (a plot line with all the subtlety of Bella), we are, one supposes, to think Shear is little more than a garden variety sociopath everyone wants to see put down before more innocent people get blown up. Yet when they do, we are supposed to feel…admiration for his cleverness? Jealousy that he has a girlfriend as hot as Halle Berry? Prophetic outrage that his war on terrorism in all our names will only lead to reprisals?

The Verdict

Yeah, it’s a bad movie, not just an offensive one. A decade later, I’d like to think I see more films than I did ten years ago but that I’m also more discriminating and hence would pass on going to see this one. In the category of things that make you go “hmmm,” though, I noticed that Swordfish had only a 26% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, while the audience vote came in at a more charitable 64%.  Populists like to claim that film critics who see a lot more movies tend to be much more tolerant of offensive elements in film than the mythical “average” Americans. Maybe that’s true, and the sorts of people who would dislike Swordfish actually listen to the critics and don’t go. I’m not so sure, though.

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