Monday, April 22, 2019

"Swordfish": A Movie Out of Time

*I write these articles under the assumption that you've seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

The few people who have stumbled upon this site might think it’s influenced by (or is a slight ripoff of) the How Did This Get Made? podcast. They would be slightly right. I would say only about half of my posts fit the same category as that podcast. I write about movies I own, not just about shitty movies. There has been some crossover, but I don’t own very many of the movies they cover on the show. And I have not timed any of my posts in relation to the movies they do....until now...sort of. They covered Van Helsing (no fucking way I would ever own that) a few weeks ago, and while checking their Facebook page I saw that people were asking about the release of the Swordfish (a movie I do own) episode. And during the Van Helsing episode, they even talk about doing a Swordfish show right before the current episode. But they haven’t released it yet. I have no idea when they will release it, but I’m assuming it will be soon. With that in mind, I decided that if I was going to watch this movie again for the podcast, why not also write about it? So that’s what’s going on with this post, and I’ll probably do it again when they cover another movie I own. Who knows when they'll release the episode, but let this article be evidence that I didn't listen to the podcast first, so any crossover comments are completely coincidental.


Is Travolta a good guy?

Travolta is clearly the antagonist of the movie, but is he a true villain? Even if his goal to acquire money to fund his fight against terrorism seems noble, innocent people die because of his actions. A lot of people die because of his plan. And, sure, some of them were bad people, but some of them just didn’t agree with him (Sam Shepard and his aide) or were collateral damage (the hostage and SWAT members killed in the explosion and Jackman’s ex and new husband [but they made pornos, so they’re bad!]). Deciding if his ends justify the means is the strongest point of the movie, and, I would argue, the main point of the movie.

Swordfish begins in the middle with Travolta seemingly speaking directly to the audience about hostage takers in movies not going far enough to get what they want. This gets the audience thinking about “bad guys” in movies. Near the end of the film is when Travolta takes it a step further and pretty much explains his whole philosophy. He presents Jackman with a classic moral dilemma: would you kill one innocent person to save multiple people? Jackman argues that no one should make such a decision and Travolta is no different than the terrorists he claims to fight. Travolta calls bullshit, claiming that needless death happens everyday, but no one seems to care, and he can and will do something about it.

This makes for an interesting villain because his argument is not completely crazy. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, but if people have to die for his ultimate goal of fighting terrorism effectively, then so be it. Looking at this practically, is he wrong? If you pay attention to the typical message of movies, he is wrong. When told one person must die to save many more, the hero always saves the one person which usually leads to them also saving everyone, making the conflict pointless. But if movies pushed the envelope like Travolta suggests, then the hero should bear the burden of their choice leading to many more deaths.

That all sounds vague, so I’ll give an example that always comes to mind. In the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man, the Green Goblin wants Spider-Man to choose: save Mary Jane or a cable car full of children. Of course, he finds a way to save both (for the record, he picked Mary Jane first...what a hero?). Most movies use the “pick one to save” situation as a challenge for the hero to overcome rather than an actual moral choice. And the movies are less interesting because of it. By the way, I am aware that other movies do make the choices actually matter, but in general the hero has to win.

With Swordfish, there wasn’t a choice situation, and Travolta appears sincerely upset that the hostage died (to be fair, Travolta has already made his choice, and Jackman does try to stop him). But he does get away with it, and it’s shown that he is hunting terrorists with the funds he received. Does this make him a good guy?

Hypothetically, I say yes, Travolta is overall a good guy. It would be hard to argue against a man fighting terrorism. But in reality, some unlucky bank patron dying for this guy’s cause would not sit well with me. Based on what we see in the movie, Travolta just wants to be free to fight terrorism effectively, without government oversight. Typically, getting around government red tape is a good thing. But when if you look at some of Travolta’s dialogue, we can see a possible slippery slope.

Travolta changes his argument about saving more people to “preserving our way of life.” That’s a little problematic but realistic. Sure, killing people just to let Americans live comfortably sounds bad. But in Travolta’s defense, that’s what seems to be important to everyone. He gives Jackman shit for not caring about the daily death toll in the world because, like most Americans, he’s shielded from it. Travolta just wants to be an effective shield for all of us moral hypocrites. Where Travolta gets truly problematic is when he brings up nuclear warheads, making a claim that he gets a discount if he buys a lot of them.

Killing a terrorist leader on his yacht is one thing, but nuking a city is quite the leap forward. Travolta’s argument is that no country would harbor terrorists once they see what he’s capable of. That means he would have to use at least one nuke to let the world know he’s serious. That doesn’t sound very logical. First, it assumes that terrorism exists because countries allow it, and that is not the case. Sure, some countries do harbor terrorists, but most are either unaware of the terrorists or unable to combat them effectively. So they get nuked? How does the rest of the world respond? And even if Travolta is rogue, would his attack not appear to be backed by America? He is one step away from becoming a Bond villain.

If Travolta just wanted to assassinate terrorist leaders, then yeah, he’s kind of a good guy despite his methods of acquiring the money. But when he brings up nukes, he enters bad guy territory. Either way, this aspect of the film definitely makes it more interesting than a lot of movies. It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t focus a bit more on this and instead painted Travolta as a total villain until the final moment of the film, but it still made for a thought-provoking element, and that’s more than you can say for most of the “shit” that Hollywood makes.




A movie out of time.

Swordfish was lucky and unlucky with its release time for many reasons. First off, if this movie had been scheduled for release three to four months later, after 9/11, who knows what the studio would have done with it. The explosion and aerial destruction would bother audiences, but that stuff wouldn’t seem insensitive if given a few months. But the plot about terrorism might have kept this out of theaters for even longer. It’s not that people wouldn’t want to see a story about a man wanting to hunt terrorists, quite the contrary. It’s possible people would be even more willing to see Travolta as a good guy. But how could you watch this movie without thinking about 9/11, which had happened yet in the world of Swordfish? It would completely take people out of the story.

It’s hard to imagine now, but terrorism was not taken all that seriously as a threat pre-9/11 (to all the older readers, I know you know this, but as someone who used to teach kids born right around or after 9/11, trust me, they have no concept of the pre-9/11 world). Obviously terrorism existed, but it was something that happened mainly in other countries, at least on a large scale. I suppose I should write “Islamic terrorism” because terrorism in the ‘90s in America was mainly domestic (the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, etc.). Even with the earlier bombing of the World Trade Center, Islamic terrorism wasn’t the focus until 9/11. At least this was certainly the case with movies. For example, look at True Lies: the terrorists in that movie are often portrayed comedically. Yes, they were a threat, but not to be taken completely seriously.

My point with all this is that terrorism became the main thing on most people’s minds in the immediate years following 9/11. That would actually make Swordfish a better movie, in my opinion. Instead of terrorism being used as a kind of tacked on aspect of the story, it would become the focus. With some reshoots and editing, the movie could exist in an even better form. It could have said something about the moment. Instead, it slightly predicted our country’s focus on terrorism. That’s still interesting, but it made for a less memorable movie for most people, myself included. Hell, I kind of forgot a lot of that part of Travolta’s plan until I rewatched it. I just remembered it for that opening explosion and Halle Berry’s topless scene.

Which brings me to why this movie would also need some major editing if it was released today. As our society becomes more mindful of sexism, gratuitous topless scenes and hacking-while-getting-a-blow-job scenes are becoming more and more rare. Today’s audiences are aware of the exploitation, and they’re not that into it anymore. On top of that, he sex in this movie felt very tacked on anyway. It was as if some producer read the script and asked, “Can we get some more sex and nudity in this? All this computer stuff is for nerds.” And that’s where Halle Berry factors into things.

At the time of its release, Swordfish was famous because producers paid Halle Berry $500,000 to do a topless scene. In 2001, that news created interest in the film. In 2019, it would create outrage, justified or not. For the record, it wasn’t one of those slimy situations in which Berry was told to get naked or she was fired. She made a lot of money for it, and she talked about how she wanted to confront her fear of doing nudity. The problem is more the world we live in where this is a situation and a story about a film.

My issue with the use of sex in the film is that it is unnatural to the story. Berry’s topless scene has no point, aside from making Hugh Jackman blush. They even filmed the scene with her clothed, as well, for the TV version, so it’s obvious that the nudity was not integral to the plot. Aside from Berry’s famous scene and other creepy, leering shots of her body throughout, one other memorable sexual moment comes to mind: the hacking test. Jackman has one minute to hack into a government website while getting a blowjob and while a gun is pointed at his head. I imagine the same producer suggesting the blowjob element when looking at the script. Once again, the point of it is to distract Jackman, but a gun to his head isn’t enough? It’s just a ridiculous scene that’s there for shock value.

You could find stuff like this in movies from any time period, including today, but I point these moments out in Swordfish because there are elements that could be taken out entirely. With the freed up space, not only is the movie less juvenile, but there is also running time that can be devoted more to the terrorism plot. And if the film would have had to go through reshoots had it been released later, it would have given the filmmakers plenty of wiggle room to make a much more serious, insightful film.

But it came out three months before the world changed. So instead of being a very serious, and entertaining, film about a changed (or changing) world, it’s the movie that paid Halle Berry a half a million dollars to get topless.


Did I imagine that this was sold as a Matrix-style movie?

I’ll keep this one short (as if many people made it this far into an article about Swordfish anyway), but for whatever reason I’ve always thought of this movie as a Matrix clone. I did find an old TV spot that mentions a quote from a review calling it “The Matrix meets The French Connection!” Maybe that’s what did it initially.

Rewatching it, I think the entire style of the film is lifted from The Matrix. The music is nearly identical: a mix of techno and traditional, though horn-heavy, score. The text of the title and location tags is similar to the text of The Matrix. The whole film has a strange tint to it similar to scenes within the matrix in...uh...The Matrix. It tries to make Jackman like Neo before he wakes up: he’s being manipulated and has no idea what’s really going on all around him. And finally, it’s a movie about hacking. Yeah, this movie was trying to be like The Matrix. It doesn’t make it bad, but it did make it very distracting when I re-watched it.

Why do I own this?

I really thought this movie was cool when I saw it in the theaters. I definitely see it as less cool these days, but I still like this movie. I dug the overall mood of the movie. I think my love of The Matrix and this movie seeming to be like The Matrix played a factor in my enjoyment of it. Most of that stuff annoys me watching it today, but I still like the twist and the overall plot. And, as always, any movie that can make me write this much should be in my collection.


Random Thoughts

The opening titles and music are such an obvious Matrix ripoff.

Ballsy move starting a movie off with a monologue about how Hollywood produces shit.

It's the rare non-Tom-Cruise-movie William Mapother role!

Vinnie Jones seemed to be everywhere for a while, then he disappeared.

I still think that opening explosion holds up, despite my reservations about using an explosion involving a hostage and police officers to make a cool effects sequence.

Man, the music is annoyingly Matrix-like.

The score is done in part by Paul Oakenfold, though, and his music was undeniably an influence on The Matrix, but still…

Who the fuck hits golf balls while wearing a bath towel?

Halle Berry is legitimately only in this movie to be gawked at, both by characters and the audience.

You know Drea de Matteo is a bad mom because she smokes Winstons. Gross!

Even the location titles do the Matrix thing.

Don Cheadle telling the hacker's lawyer to eat a dick is great.

They even have the same slider phones from The Matrix!

When the police tech guys start talking about the porn dude, the nerdier one tries to hand Cheadle a VHS tape. Was that one of the pornos? Did he just have that at hand? At work? What the fuck is going on there?

And then one of them says Halle Berry is out of Hugh Jackman's league? Is anyone, male or female, out of Jackman's league?

Speaking of which, my God this is a horny movie. It seems like every five minutes there's something sexual: a blowjob while hacking, skinny dipping, full frontal nudity, etc. I can see why I liked this a bit more back when I was seventeen.

I don't when I became so critical of movie music, but it just really bothered me rewatching this. When Jackman runs from Cheadle, it starts off with the techno stuff that had been playing the whole movie. But when he jumps down the hill, the music jarringly shifts into traditional peril music. Pick a style and stick with it!

They really tried their best to make hacking exciting with that silly montage.

What hacker drinks multiple bottles of wine while working? Wouldn't he need to be alert?

That Jefferson line is bullshit, but maybe that's what Sam Shepard was about to say when Travolta shot him.

I think the inspiration for the line is Aaron Burr killing a man in a duel while he was Vice President. But it wasn't for treason, and it certainly wasn't on the White House lawn.

I don't see the point of starting the movie with the hostage sequence other than just wanting to start the movie with the most expensive sequence.

I can't believe the hook-a-bus-full-of-human-claymores-to-a-helicopter didn't go smoothly.

I like that Travolta and Berry survive and get the money to go on their war on terror cruise, but I don’t like that he planned everything Jackman would do. Part of his plan is that a hacker/dad is going to be able to use a rocket launcher and hit a helicopter with it. That seems a bit too far-fetched, even for a movie like this.

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