Summary by John J. Puccio:
As the saying goes, you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear. Even with all the gussying up that HD-DVD brings to the movie, and it is considerable, "Swordfish" remains "Swordfish," an action thriller I didn't care for any more in its fancy new high-definition garb than I did in standard definition.
Of course, there are many fans who love this picture, and for them, watching it in 1080 scan lines rather than 480, over four times the total pixel count, will be a special pleasure. Even I, as a non-fan, have to admit the film looks great.
We must first begin with a caution, though: "Swordfish" centers on terrorist activity, hostage-taking, multiple killings, and buildings blowing up. In this post 9/11 day and age, it's best that people be forewarned.
"Swordfish" was the secret word for entrance to a speakeasy in the 1932 Marx Brothers comedy "Horse Feathers." It is also the code name for a covert government slush fund in the 2001 action thriller, "Swordfish." If the latter movie thinks it's paying tribute to the former by borrowing its famous password, it's not doing it much of a favor. For one thing, most of the audience for the new film will probably have little knowledge of the older one; for another thing, the new film is little more than an excuse to insert as much violence, profanity, and sex as possible into a postmodern exercise in futility. In any case, I thought the Marx Brothers film made a lot more sense than this new one, and unless you can't get enough abuse from today's headlines, the Marx Brothers were more entertaining than "Swordfish."
"You know what the problem with Hollywood is?" asks John Travolta as the film's antagonist in an opening monologue. "They make sh-t. Unbelievable, unremarkable sh-t." The film obviously wants us to consider it as more of the same, begs us to take our best shots, and then smugly assumes the position that only IT is cool enough, with-it enough, to facetiously poke fun at itself. I guess this is supposed to make us see how really good the film is by being so hip to itself. Yet while I found this self-righteous, referential deprecation annoyingly smug, at least it was minutely thought provoking.
Then the opening sequence reveals twenty hostages wrapped in explosives and culminates in a really big Hollywood explosion; I mean, it's a Hollywood explosion to end all Hollywood explosions. If only the rest of the film had continued along the lines of its controversial and incendiary opening pace, I might have found it more interesting. Instead, the movie quickly dissolves into a fairly standard caper flick, punctuated by unbelievable exaggeration.
The film tells its story in flashback. Travolta is a seemingly evil, ferocious, criminal mastermind named Gabriel Shear, who is recruiting the world's best hackers to break into a covert DEA bank account that contains 9.5 billion dollars. Travolta has developed into one of the screen's most fascinating actors, and his deft portrayal of the cool, calculating arch villain here is without question the best part of the picture, even if we've seen him in similar roles before. As he tells one of his associates, he's a murderer with ethics, and, like Houdini, he uses misdirection as his biggest asset; indeed, we're never quite sure where the actor (or the character) is going to take us next.
Among the other players in the film is Hugh Jackman as Stanley Jobson, the "most dangerous hacker in America." Turns out, he's a pretty decent fellow, a Mr. Nice-Guy, in fact, who has just spent the last eighteen months in prison for a hacking job he did on the government but out of good conscience. Anyway, Gabriel persuades and coerces Stanley into joining his team by first offering him a bribe of $10,000,000 and then holding a gun to his head! Since Stanley needs the money to hire lawyers to get his young daughter back from his alcoholic ex-wife and her new, porn-king husband, Stanley agrees. Does this sound like piling on to you? Jackman is first-rate in the role--noble, heroic, stalwart, athletic by turns. But, still, he pales by comparison to Travolta's enigmatic scoundrel, who is able to manipulate people, including the audience, in so many far-fetched ways.
Then, there's Halle Berry as Ginger, Gabriel's right-hand man, er, woman. She's gorgeous and seductive and almost as problematical as her boss. We're never quite sure just whose side she's on. Her most famous contribution to the film, however, is her topless scene. You doubtless read about it even if you haven't seen it; it's probably more well known than the movie itself. The scene is a very big deal, and, like almost everything else that happens in this plot, it's very unnecessary. Except perhaps to fans of high definition, because there is no denying that Ms. Berry is quite attractive, and no extra pixel sent her way is wasted.
The final major players in the cast are Don Cheadle and Sam Shepard. Cheadle is the one who almost disappears from sight and mind by the end of the film, playing a dedicated, hard-nosed FBI agent hot on Gabriel's trail. Cheadle's so good, I almost wish he had played Stanley's part. And we see Shepard briefly in a throwaway role as a U.S. Senator, a squandering of talent.
Joel Silver produced "Swordfish," he being the guy behind "Exit Wounds," "Dungeons & Dragons," "Romeo Must Die," the remake of "The House on Haunted Hill," and, of course, "The Matrix." You can see his track record here includes mainly action flicks, and with one big exception, not always good ones. "Swordfish" was directed by Dominic Sena, whose two previous credits were "Kalifornia" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds," the latter of which was gone and forgotten in less time. Neither filmmaker exactly inspires confidence in cinematic masterpieces, but in "Swordfish" the men seem to be trying to outdo themselves in the violence department. They never manage to top that initial explosion, but it doesn't stop them from trying. Like about every two minutes. People murdered with shots through their head and endless, needless chases (on foot, in cars, in helicopters) are designed to promote action for action's sake alone, never to advance plot. The filmmakers use fancy quick edits, scenes bathed in dusky golden glows, and loud, raucous music continuously to replace old-fashioned, intelligent script writing.
By the story's end, the filmmakers seem to be making it up as they go along, with multiple climaxes atop one another as if Silver and Sena either didn't want to end the show or had no idea how to do so. One can easily anticipate the final plot twists, yet they are awkward, nonetheless.
Technical Review by Dean Winkelspecht:
Warner Bros. continues to dominate the Blu-Ray format with their release of "Swordfish." Their utilization of the VC-1 compression technology keeps them on the pole position and this is another fine release from the WB. Presented with a 2.4:1 aspect ration and 1080p resolution, the image quality of "Swordfish" is brightly colored and highly detailed and helps cement this title as one of the best looking Blu-Ray titles yet released. Detail and color are the two elements that instantly strike the viewer as being truly high definition. The silly little excuse for a beard that adorns John Travolta's chin comes across nicely detailed, as does the contours and angles of the actors face. His suits are quite dapper in this film and the image quality helps keep them so. As John pointed out in the summary section, Halle Berry looks exquisite in high definition and every pixel is worth a look when she is on screen.
Colors are incredibly bright and beautifully saturated. In the past few years, digital processing and technology has allowed for greater color reproduction and you can easily tell when a newer picture is playing simply by the wondrous colors. I do have to admit that some of the older films that were mastered in formats such as Vista Vision have amazing colors for their age, but I have just finished reviewing "The Fugitive" and I can tell you that comparing this film to that other Warner Bros. release shows how downright striking the colors are in "Swordfish." Black levels are just as strong as the colors. Film grain is absent, as are any other faults in either the source materials or digital compression. Warner Bros. is going to hold the pole position for the Blu-Ray format until another studio steps up with VC-1 compression or the dual layer discs are readied for mass production.
As I am writing up this review, I am listening to the first Weird Al Yankovic album on compact disc. It sounds downright ancient. A lot of this greatly due to the fact I just sat through a powerful and aggressive Dolby Digital soundtrack via "Swordfish" on Blu-Ray. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 multi-channel surround mix is one of the more entertaining audio experiences I have had so far on the new format and though it is not mastered in Uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio, the soundtrack alone elevates the value of this film. Nearly every scene in this film is a sonic assault on the senses. If an action sequence is not unfolding on the screen, there is bound to be some bass-happy dance music thumping through the speakers. If anything made me giddy while watching this John Travolta spectacle, it was the opening explosion sequence. Incredible.
All good aggressive and lively soundtracks fully use all six channels. "Swordfish" is no exception. The .1 LFE channel pounds hard during action sequences and puts in overtime during the opening explosive sequence. The rear channels feature wonderful environmental and directional effects, especially during this initial carnage. The front three channels pull double duty wonderfully by recreating both the sound effects required by the film and the dialogue. "Swordfish" does not allow many moments for the actors to enjoy a moment of silence to speak and fortunately, the Dolby Digital mix holds up perfectly and dialogue is fully intelligible. The only drawback is the dialogue is mastered slightly lower than the loud effects, so your ears are attacked with a higher decibel level during the action scenes.
"Swordfish" gains all of the supplemental materials that appeared previously on both the HD-DVD release and the even older standard definition DVD. This is another area where Warner Bros. has continued to excel – they provide the best value in additional content and have yet to slight viewers who are looking to upgrade their old DVD discs. The Commentary by Director Dominic Sena is the longest and meatiest of the extras. Dominic Sena talks continually through the commentary and provides lots of information about the production of the film. I'd be fairly certain that most consumers have never previously heard of the film's director, but this should not dissuade you from a good commentary track.
The 2 Alternate Endings find their way to you once again. The endings are best left on the cutting room floor and the director details why he also feels that way. They are well worth checking out, but the director ultimately made the best decision with the theatrical release. The EPK HBO First Look: Swordfish runs for about fifteen minutes and if you've seen one HBO First Look short, you've seen this one. The eight minute The Effects in Focus: The Flying Bus featurette breaks down the nice special effects from the ‘Flying Bus' scene in the film. This was a nice little short to watch. Planet Rock Club Reel Music Video is a short bit with a long and confusing name and not much substance. Swordfish: In Conversation: Cast/Crew Interviews is a twelve minute talking-heads featurette that finds discussion with Hugh Jackman, John Travolta, Producer Joel Silver, Halle Berry and others. Finally, the Theatrical Trailer squeezes in to finish the decent selection of value added materials.
With all of the short windowed releases on the High Definition formats, there have been discussions on the best way to bring these reviews to you, without inundating you with too much to read. This works out well, because you are able to focus on the technical differences between the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray reviews and I get to re-read all of John J. Puccio's wonderful reviews and borrow from them. Fortunately, John and I have similar views on "Swordfish" and I'm going to quote him here – "Swordfish is a technically competent thriller containing a maximum degree of violence and a minimum degree of humor, wit, or common sense." I'm going to add to that the fact it has a topless Halle Berry, because that is really the only claim to fame this film has. The picture is entertaining enough, but not the sort of film you want to witness again and again. As far as a Blu-Ray release goes, the picture is striking and the audio is lively and equals that of the competing HD-DVD release. The value added materials are exactly what the older versions of this film have contained. On technical merit alone, "Swordfish" is worth a spot on your shelf, otherwise, there are better selections out there.