Not since Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs has the celluloid unveiling of a woman’s body part been so gleefully and lasciviously exploited by Hollywood. Swordfish, the incoherently compelling new action thriller directed by Dominic Sena and produced by Joel Silver, seems to draw part of its identity from the big-money boobs on display.
In just about every interview, preview or review relating to Swordfish, it’s been noted that Halle Berry reveals her breasts to every mouth-breather in the world—a chore for which she was paid $500,000, rumor has it. They do indeed appear for about five seconds, in all their healthy glory, in a completely superfluous scene existing only for the unveiling. I say God bless her.
I, for one, am all in favor of gratuitous nudity coming back into vogue. We’ve thankfully ditched the gratuitously lazy cursing that was so popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And gratuitous smoking has disappeared as well in the last few years, now that tobacco companies can’t be as sneaky as they used to be without the California Health Board people jumping up their asses.
Gratuitous nudity was gradually covered up over the last decade in big-budget Hollywood by the instinct to make more money with a PG-13 rating. But if moviemakers are allowed to keep one vice, why shouldn’t it be skin? Let’s have a return to the days when every leading lady got naked at least once, and every leading man showed his sweaty white rear (or, in Harvey Keitel’s case, showed exactly why he drives a big red car). It’s fun, it’s embarrassing for some of the stars—and it sells tickets, too.
The comeback already has begun (Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair, Amy Smart in Road Trip, Katie Holmes in The Gift), but maybe a profitable run by Swordfish would confirm that flesh is still worth peddling. Movies are an escapist industry, and there’s probably nothing in this world—or even in the dreamlike espionage world of Swordfish—more unobtainable for men or women than Halle Berry’s chest.
But there’s more than two spectacular boobs in Swordfish—there’s John Travolta, too. The film’s crackling opening scene starts with a lengthy monologue by Travolta about bad movies—and ends in a show-stopping explosion in which characters are blown into the air and shredded by ball bearings as the scene is panned and circled in slow-motion with 135 synchronized still cameras. Sena (who made Gone in 60 Seconds, another good-looking dumb movie) never runs out of visual tricks as he unrolls a confusing story in which maddeningly few questions about its fascinating characters are answered.
In a recapturing of at least a fraction of the ultracool charisma he had in Pulp Fiction and Face/Off, Travolta plays Gabriel, some sort of superspy “who exists in a world you can’t even imagine,” as somebody tells Stanley (Hugh Jackman). Stanley was a big-time computer hacker who got thrown in jail for screwing up the FBI’s Carnivore e-mail surveillance program. He’s living in a Texas oil field when Ginger (Halle, fully clothed), Gabriel’s right-hand woman, drives up in a convertible and persuades him to meet with her boss.
Gabriel wants Stanley to hack into a bank’s computer system, or something, in order to get at a $9.5 billion slush fund from a covert government operation called Swordfish. And after their first meeting, in which Gabriel challenges Stanley to hack the Department of Defense while receiving oral pleasure, things begin to get cloudy, with characters shifting allegiances and sympathies thanks to a gleeful amorality that’s entertaining but baffling.
The setup seems interesting—particularly midway through the film, when we discover Gabriel’s real motives. If only the script could be bothered long enough to explain anything. Sadly, Skip Woods’ screenplay has no interest in grounding its story in much of anything beyond explosions and set pieces.
Swordfish also spends way too much time with characters typing on computers. Like the studying montages used to indicate that movie characters are learning things, typing montages are lazy storytelling devices that should be cut by any editor worth his exorbitant union wage.
In the end, the frustration of Swordfish’s incoherence overcomes its visual and stylistic treats. Even a small amount of exposition would have turned it into a sparkling, trashy thriller, but it’s much more interested in rushing to the part where a city bus gets dangled from tension wires attached to a helicopter as it streaks across Los Angeles. There’s plenty to see here that’s more interesting than Halle Berry’s breasts—but unlike them, the film could use a bit more support.
Swordfish (R) HH Directed by Dominic Sena. Starring John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry.