Awfully Good: Swordfish

Last Updated on August 5, 2021


Swordfish (2001)


Director: Dominic Sena
Stars: Hugh Jackman's earring, John Travolta's weird soulpatch, Halle Berry's everything


Storm seduces Wolverine in to hacking the government and stealing $9 billion for bad guy Howard Saint*, while FBI agent War Machine is hot on their tail.

*Howard Saint was John Travolta's character in Tom Jane's THE PUNISHER, which is Marvel and still counts.

SWORDFISH came on TV recently and I said to myself, "Okay, I'll just watch the opening bullet-time explosion. That was pretty cool." Then I remembered the scene where you get to see Wolverine's O-face while he hacks in to the Department of Defense. Definitely can't miss that. And by that time, it was, "Well, we're pretty close to Halle Berry's big… reveal. It'd be rude not to stick around."

Before I knew it I was actually watching SWORDFISH.

SWORDFISH Hugh Jackman blowjob
Wolverine's skeleton wasn't the only thing bonded with adamantium.

For being a fairly terrible movie, there's a lot about SWORDFISH that is surprisingly memorable. For one, it's a film about doing whatever it takes to stop terrorist attacks that had the unfortunate distinction of coming out three months before 9/11 (and also predicting the Patriot Act almost to a tee). There are also plenty of absurd moments that are hard to forget. Like the aforementioned part where poor Hugh Jackman has to prove he's the world's greatest hacker by essentially getting raped at gunpoint in the middle of a nightclub, a scene which two decades ago is of course played for laughs. Or the chase sequence that ends with the characters all deciding to jump off a literal cliff and fall down a mountain for an inordinately long period of time, like that scene in HOT ROD.

It's also an early 2000s Joel Silver action movie, just 1,000x more unbearably meta. Tthe film literally opens with John Travolta staring in to the camera and saying, "You know what the problem with Hollywood is? They make shit. Unbelievable, unremarkable shit." He then proceeds to go on a philosophical rant about the problems with modern cinema, even critiquing DOG DAY AFTERNOON, before landing on the big issue: the lack of realism in motion pictures.

Yes, this movie—whose third act involves a city bus full of explosive-laden hostages being picked up by a helicopter and flown (literally) through the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles—has the gall to preach to you about realism.

From the producers of THE MATRIX!

You almost have to respect just how brazenly outlandish and mistakenly confident SWORDFISH is. Skip Woods, whose other screenwriting credits include X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, clearly has to be in on the joke. The script is so overwritten and attention-seeking in its cleverness that it borders between parody and high art. It's like a student film trying its damndest to show off, except this one cost $100 million.

And I will admit that even when this movie is at its dumbest, it still looks slick as hell with some solid visuals and well-shot action. It honestly makes me a little bummed that Dominic Sena (KALIFORNIA, GONE IN 60 SECONDS) hasn’t directed anything in almost a decade.

SWORDFISH storm wolverine
"I'm here from the future to save you from doing THE LAST STAND. Come with me if you want to live."

It also boasts one hell of a cast. Hugh Jackman, in one of his first post-X-MEN roles, plays a hacker who just wants his kid back, dammit. (He also wears an earring to further distance himself from Wolverine.) One of the great joys of SWORDFISH is just how hilariously bad the computer and technology scenes are handled. And as much as I love Jackman, he completely does not sell himself in the role.

SWORDFISH's version of hacking involves the actor looking at six monitors at once, smashing away at a keyboard and yelling "Confirm! Confirm!" as random crystal shapes appear on the screen. As someone who has previously used a computer before, I can confirm that the montage showcasing this, set to a song called "50,000 Watts of Funkin'," was already cringeworthy in 2001 and has not gotten any better.

At least his computer worm is not an actual worm. I was really afraid they might do that.

SWORDFISH travolta guns
You can take the actor out of the John Woo movie, but you can't take the John Woo movie out of the actor.

The script also tries so hard to make John Travolta's villain Gabriel Shear seem cool and mysterious, even having another character narrate his onscreen introduction: "He exists in a world beyond your world. What we only fantasize, he does. He lives a life where nothing is beyond him." Meanwhile, he's just walking in to a club and getting bottle service.

The problem is that Travolta has already played a much more charismatic and interesting terrorist in FACE/OFF and SWORDFISH is just a pale comparison. It also doesn't help that the movie really wants him to be a morally-interesting antihero, but it just doesn't work. The film's central heist involves stealing $9 billion in dubiously-collected government money so he can commit terrorist attacks on terrorists. That's Gabriel's big plan. To nuke an entire foreign city of innocent people to scare terrorists. At one point, after he's killed a number of cops and hostages, he says, "I'll sacrifice as many lives as I have to to protect this country!" If I thought this movie was capable of irony, I might think this was meant to be funny.

The rest of the cast is also similarly undercooked. Halle Berry really is only there as eye candy. (I remember interviews where she said her famous topless scene was crucial to the story and selling the character. Hint: It's not.) Don Cheadle pops in every now and then simply to yell at people as an FBI agent who needs to be in anger management. And Juggernaut himself, Vinnie Jones, gets one line in the entire movie and of course it's about sticking a rocket launcher up someone's ass like a suppository.

SWORDFISH halle berry gun
This outfit definitely helps develop her character.

But the real star of SWORDFISH has to be the twist ending, which is so heavily choreographed and constantly hinted at that it does most of the film's heavy lifting. From the very first scene, characters keep saying things like, "Audiences love happy endings [wink]" and "Not everything ends like you think it should!" Travolta gives a whole speech about how Harry Houdini was master of misdirection because he could trick people who had no idea they were being tricked. Oh, and they literally show you that he has a realistic dead dummy version of himself halfway through the film…and then expect you to be shocked when he fakes his own death at the end.

And shoutout to all the people that our hero Hugh Jackman kills in this movie, either directly (i.e. blowing up a helicopter with a rocket launcher over a busy downtown L.A. street) or indirectly (getting his ex-wife and her new boyfriend murdered) with absolutely no consequences whatsoever. 

SWORDFISH middle finger
A solid metaphor for how the film feels about itself.

SWORDFISH is so ridiculous that by the end I was entertaining myself just imagining all the planning meetings that Travolta and his crew had to have had in between scenes from the film.

"Okay, when Stanley gets here, this prostitute is going to go down on him while you guys rough him up and threaten his life, cool? One, two, three, teamwork!"

"Ginger, honey, I love you, but would it be cool if I hung you by the neck from the ceiling just to motivate Stanley in to helping us steal the money faster? I'm sure he'll finish before you die. Also, what are your feelings about getting shot?"

"Hi, I'm interested in renting a helicopter for an afternoon. Yes, it would just be one passenger. Actually you'd be flying a realistic mockup of my corpse. Random question, but do you have life insurance?"


I mean, that's pretty much what everyone remembers this movie for, right?

Want to learn how to hack? Buy this movie here!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • The movie is meta
  • Something involving technology or hacking is clearly wrong
  • Halle Berry says or does something sexual
  • Someone comments on Hugh Jackman's clothing
  • Don Cheadle is angry

Double shot if:

  • They say the name of the movie

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email and give him an excuse to drink.


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