Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pre-"War on Terror" Terror Film: "Swordfish" (Warners, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I were able to get in a movie: Swordfish, a flawed but interesting thriller from 2001 that anticipated much of the “war on terror” and probably flopped because it was released three months before the 9/11 attacks; before 9/11 terrorism wasn’t an interesting topic to moviegoers and afterwards this film was suddenly so politically incorrect that Warners pulled it from theatres. Swordfish stars John Travolta as “Gabriel,” a mysterious super-rich crook who masterminds a digital heist of $9 billion in money stashed away inside the Drug Enforcement Administration; Hugh Jackman as paroled hacker Stanley Jobson, whom he enlists to help him; Halle Berry as Ginger Knowles, whom Gabriel enlists to help him lure Stanley (and who turns out to be an undercover DEA agent who’s stupid enough to try to wear a wire under a bikini, which Stanley spots ridiculously easily); Don Cheadle as J. T. Roberts, FBI agent who’s trying to get to the bottom of all this; and Sam Shepard as a U.S. Senator who’s Gabriel’s contact in high places until Gabriel assassinates him midway through the movie.

Swordfish is an entertaining film but also a frustrating one because at times it seems like a genuinely exciting and powerful thriller while at other times it seems like appropriate fodder for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — and Charles and I couldn’t resist the temptation to make MST3K-style jokes during the film: when a minor character, Axl Torvalds (Rudolf Martin), says of Gabriel early on, “He exists in a world beyond your world,” I said, “Of course he does! He’s a Scientologist!” Director Dominic Sena and writer Skip Woods — who’d previously collaborated on Gone in 60 Seconds, a hit film about auto theft — decided that they’d solve the problem of all people who’ve made movies about white-collar crime, from Money and the Woman to The Firm (namely, that white-collar crime is very boring to look at: someone writing entries in a ledger book, running a copier or typing at a computer keyboard is intrinsically uninteresting visually and requires reams of exposition to explain why what he’s doing is illegal and why we should care), by filling this full of thriller-type action: the film begins in the middle of a bank robbery masterminded by Travolta’s character and contains innumerable chase scenes of people fleeing each other down mountains, shooting each other from cars, and a final action scene in which Travolta’s character orders a helicopter to lift up a bus containing his hostages from the bank job and fly it over the police who are chasing it — as well as a morbid ending indicating that he got away with it after all.

I was hoping Swordfish would be a modern-day version of The Asphalt Jungle with computers, and indeed there are those elements, but the film has the emotional coldness all too common in modern movies and the characters are portrayed almost anthropologically rather than as flesh-and-blood people with identifiable emotions that would make us care about them. This film also suffers from a common flaw in thriller plotting these days: on the one hand we’re supposed to believe that Gabriel has kept a low profile in the world and that’s why he’s evaded capture for so long, while on the other hand he drives around in a cool sports car (a British-made TVR Tuscan, which can’t legally be sold in the U.S. because of its emissions levels) and machine-guns eight people in a hot killing spree that’s just a blind for his main plot.

What made Swordfish a political liability after 9/11 is not only that it featured a shot of a building blowing up but the entire political conceit behind the plot: we’re supposed to believe that Travolta’s character is the current head of a “Black” office within the FBI founded by J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950’s and somehow kept alive and in business under his successors, aimed at maintaining the American way of life by murdering anyone in the world who’s perceived as posing a threat to it.

The credo of this office, as Travolta’s character expresses it in the film, is not only chilling enough in itself but in 2008 sounds an awful lot like Dick Cheney’s rhetoric: when Stanley asks him why he’s described America as being “at war” and who the war is against, he replies, “Anyone who impinges on America’s freedom. Terrorist states, Stanley. Someone must bring their war to them. They bomb a church, we bomb 10. They hijack a plane, we take out an airport. They execute American tourist, we tactically nuke an entire city. Our job is to make terrorism so horrific that is becomes unthinkable to attack Americans.” At the end of the movie, after he’s faked his own death (with a corpse of a similar-looking Israeli intelligence agent whom he captured and killed just for this purpose, and who supplied him the alias “Gabriel”), Travolta’s character blows up a yacht on which an Arab terrorist is vacationing off the coast of Monaco — so that guy bites the big one instead of presumably planning 9/11, leading at least some moviegoers to think that having a guy like this around wouldn’t have been such a bad deal despite all the people he kills as “collateral damage.”

In a season where the top hit movies are things like The Dark Knight and WALL-E that are being described by critics as relentlessly dark, Swordfish seems about seven years ahead of its time — as in its at least ostensible disgust at the you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us mentality on which the Bush “war on terror” has been based (though, as I noted above, it’s conceivable to read this film as an endorsement of an any-means-necessary “war on terror” as well as an attack on it) — though I doubt Sena and Woods had any political axes to grind in the making of this film: they just thought it would be an entertaining premise for a thriller, and if they deliberately attacked anybody it’s other filmmakers, since Travolta’s character is constantly prattling on and on and on about the inaccuracies and distortions in other films in the genre.

Swordfish is also a movie full of “in” jokes: the title comes from the speakeasy scene in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, the name of Stanley Jobson seems to have been picked because of its similarity to Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple (which makes it ironic indeed that the DVD carries a warning that its special extended features won’t work on Macintosh computers!), one character is named “Bill Joy” after the founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, and “Axl Torvalds” is clearly christened after Linus Torvalds, author of the Linux operating system. Warners also sought permission from the publishers of the hacker magazine 2600 (which Charles regularly buys at Paras News) to include their magazine in the film — and 2600’s publishers told them to screw off, given that at the same time Warners was suing them for having put up on their Web site a link to another site that contained the anti-copying code used in standard DVD’s. Swordfish is yet another modern movie that manages to work on its own terms as “thrill ride” entertainment but could have been considerably deeper and richer than it turned out — though its biggest fascination is that it’s at once an artifact of the pre-9/11 era and an unwittingly close harbinger of how the U.S. government would behave post-9/11.