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Firing on all Cylinders


Swordfish (R)
Warner Bros.

This action-heist movie makes cyberspace and theft look glamorous. Uber bad guy Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) convinces good guy superhacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman) to help him steal billions of dollars in illegal government funds (code-named "Swordfish") to finance a ruthless anti-terrorism unit. Bullets fly, explosions rock and unexpected objects take flight as cops and politicians crumble beneath intense action. Good pacing and intriguing characters drive an overflowing testosterone blitz to an above-average level of fun.

John Travolta shines as Gabriel, a self-styled Euro-trash criminal with a thing for Houdini illusions. Just when Travolta, with wing haircut and soul patch, gets so casual as Gabriel that he seems to be just going through the motions, he blurts out a bit of verbal fire that lets you know he's absolutely present.

The production team of Joel Silver (The Matrix) and Jonathan Krane (Face/Off) are slick proponents of 21st-century action thrillers that make a point of adding surprises to the well-worn genre. One of the unforeseen arrivals in Swordfish is a return to sex and nudity as an essential element of the gritty, urban nature of the action thriller. Of course, it's the entertainment trapping that they're after and there's no denying that it does spice up the rigmarole of the big action stunts.

Swordfish opens with a Tarantinoesque coffee-shop scene with Gabriel pontificating about Dog Day Afternoon. Gabriel talks with unseen men about what a good movie Dog Day was, but how it failed to push the envelope, primarily because Pacino's character didn't start killing hostages immediately to effectively succeed in his mission. Gabriel finishes his coffee, gets up and walks out of the caf right into the middle of a fierce hostage crisis occurring in the bank across the street. Snipers point from every roof, SWAT members swarm around while police cars block off every nook and cranny, and yet Gabriel walks through it all like some kind of grand conductor. It's a moment of existential, postmodern, deconstructionist purity that taps right into the kind of CNN media-shaped reality that assaults living rooms whenever crisis ensues.

Each of the 15 hostages wears hi-tech vests of explosives that will deploy if they stray beyond the immediate perimeter. This is a crisis that's so out of control it mocks the very presence of any authorial supervision. In this way Swordfish openly defies an audience to second-guess what has proceeded or will happen next. The story soon spools back to the events leading up to the crisis, and characters are put through their identity-revealing paces in one tense situation after another.

Given the recent spate of underwhelming action thrillers like 15 Minutes or Vertical Limit, it's good to see a creative approach to the genre that fires on all cylinders. Director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) lets a few obvious flaws slip through and doesn't quite know how to milk optimal suspense from big action sequences, but he does catch tons of nuance from his actors.

Hugh Jackman (X-Men) is an absorbing actor to watch and promises to add his name to the list of Hollywood's leading men. Jackman has a trace of Robert Mitchum in his demeanor that's a welcome replacement to the smirky delivery of Bruce Willis, yesterday's leading man action hero.

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