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John Travolta practices his product placement.

© 2001 Warner Bros
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The twisty and tangled "Swordfish" (IMDb listing) reminds me quite a bit of last year's Ben Affleck heist flick "Reindeer Games." Though the films are not identical in plot or appearance, they are both sneaky little B-list thrillers that some how came into A-List talent and money. At its very snappiest, "Swordfish" is a sleek, incredibly fun tech thriller with far too many resources for its own good.

Located in a heavily encrypted DEA computer is a slush fund worth more than $9 billion. Gabriel Shear (John Travolta) is a top government agent who needs that money to fund his own private army to stop foreign terrorists in their own countries. Shear enlists Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), a former cracker who's troubles with the law prevent him from seeing his beloved daughter, and from even looking at a computer. With the help of Shear's assistant Ginger (Halle Berry), Stanley is convinced to help break into the DEA computer and collect the money. On their trail is a burned-out cyber crimes agent (Don Cheadle) who always seems to be one step behind Shear and his gang.

Freed from the crippling grip of Jerry Bruckheimer, director Dominic Sena ("Gone In Sixty Seconds") finds himself with a little more breathing room in "Swordfish." Without the burden of a PG-13 rating and trying to remake a 1970s demolition derby classic, Sena focuses more tightly on identities and motivations in this new, undeniably adult, film. Using an admittedly tired storytelling concept of starting in one time and place, then heading backwards to see how we ended up at the opening, Sena starts the film with a "Matrix"-inspired effect (the 360 degree "Bullet Time" shot) that left me nervous thinking that I just stepped into another irritating special effects thriller. Pleasingly, Sena soon retreats from pretentious theatrics and settles down to tell an involving yarn that relies more on character allegiances than kung-fu flips through the air.

Reteaming with most of his "Gone In Sixty Seconds" crew, Sena immerses his film in the very same Southern Californian haze as "Sixty Seconds." I always hope that directors vary the look of their films slightly from picture to picture, and it disappoints me that Sena has opted to layer his movie in the same dull glow that ruined, at least visually, "Gone In Sixty Seconds." It takes away from the action, and its predictability is disheartening.

Almost no character in "Swordfish" is simply good or bad. They all have shades of gray to them that keeps the audience guessing just who is working for whom. While hardly "The Usual Suspects," "Swordfish"'s character designs are surprisingly complex, and their motivations patriotic without the requisite American flag waving in the background (Michael Bay, I'm looking at you!). Through Travolta's character Gabriel Shear perpetrates evil deeds, in his own mind his goal is admirable: kill known terrorists to make America the most feared nation on the planet. Dodging the usual madman route, "Swordfish" is all the more enjoyable for keeping its villain even-tempered. It forces the audience to battle with its own feelings on just how amoral Shear's ideas might be.

It always seems to be Travolta's finest hour when he portrays a villain ("Face/Off," "Broken Arrow"), and "Battlefield Earth" doesn't count. In "Swordfish," Travolta eats up his shady role with authority. It's almost effortless just how completely Travolta absorbs the screen with each appearance. Chalk it up to charisma or just plain old star power, Travolta—with his flowing locks and his soul-patch—is a site to behold.

Hugh Jackman also turns in a fine realization as the troubled cracker Stanley. In this, his third lavish American production, the Australian actor shoots straight to the top amongst leading men. "Swordfish" is as physical a role as his Wolverine turn in Bryan Singer's "X-Men," and Jackman finds an equitable amount of tension in the violent scenes as he does in the wordy dialog scenes. Instead of just biding his time in a big-budget action film, Jackman finds the means to make the film his own.

With all this talk about character and performance, it's not to say that Sena doesn't get his rocks off with action as well. This is a Joel Silver production (the "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard" franchises, "Romeo Must Die," "The Matrix") for goodness sake. We have to have at least one city bus flying through the skies of Los Angeles, right? And we do, in a spectacular climax that has Shear chaining up a transit vehicle to a helicopter to elude the cops. It's ideas like this, and a comical chase scene that has Jackman tumbling down the side of a cliff with three cops tumbling down after him, that renew my faith in the ingenuity of Hollywood directors. I wouldn't classify "Swordfish" deep or intelligent entertainment, but I would call "Swordfish" delectably entertaining.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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