Reviewed by: Dr. Kenneth R. Morefield
|Featuring:||Starring: John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle and Vinnie Jones|
|Producer:||Joel Silver, Jonathan D. Krane, Jonathan Krane and Steve Richards|
There is a scene about a third of the way through “Swordfish” in which the protagonist is held at gun point by a character while being raped by his accomplice in front of a room full of amused spectators. The fact that the character being raped is male and that the sex is oral somehow made it not only okay with the audience I watched the film with (in a north Philadelphia mall theater) but vaguely exciting as well. Don’t let the silly storyline about hacking into computers to steal government DEA sting money fool you—this movie is essentially a male rape fantasy constructed for the purpose of getting us to that scene and another in which Halle Berry bares her breasts. The fact that nobody is shown “doing it” just makes it soft porn instead of hard core.
The scene in question revolves around Hugh Jackman’s Stanley Jobson, an elite computer hacker who agrees to meet with a criminal mastermind after being offered $10,000 just to listen to his offer. Berry’s Ginger is the messenger, and when she brings Jobson to Gabriel Shear’s party, Shear holds Jobson at gunpoint while his henchman pull down Jobson’s pants, stick a laptop in front of him, and tell him to hack the pentagon in sixty seconds while getting oral sex or he will be killed. The movie wants somehow to imply that this is just as demeaning to Jobson as it is to the nameless, voiceless woman who is forced to publicly service him, because neither had a choice, but I wasn’t buying.
While both are powerless in the situation, one is being forced to do something that she (or the average woman) presumably does not want to do, while the other is having something done that he (or the average adolescent guy who is the target audience) wants done to him, albeit not under those particular circumstances. Yes, he is supposed to be scared that he is going to die, but the movie is winking the whole time—nobody in the theater seriously thought for a second that the lead was going to die twenty minutes into the film.
So, once you strip aside the bogus veneer the scene is essentially a Penthouse Forum mini-set piece for adolescent boys—imagine getting a free blow job from a gorgeous blonde without even having to ask for it and no fear of rejection! And what is the price he has to pay for such a fantasy? Well, first he throws up in the bathroom, and then he gets to play with a supercomputer with seven monitors. Poor guy. Perhaps it would be educational to show this scene back to back with the rape scene in “The Accused” (1988) in order to reinforce the message yet again: rape is not a crime of passion; it is a crime of violence. Or perhaps I am too optimistic in hoping that a significant portion of our sex crazed population would notice (or care about) the difference.
The rape scene is a metaphor for the movie’s moral stance overall. For those who think I am reading the titillation motive into it, I would direct you to the opening scene. Here Travolta’s Shear has a long monologue about how people really want to see movies in which the bad guy gets away with it. “Swordfish” thinks it is being clever here, laying bare the device in a very postmodern way (“See! See! Our art is self-referential! We are doing what we are talking about! The characters seem to be talking about ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ but they are really providing commentary on what we are doing.”) While the film thinks it is superclever in its analysis of American culture’s desires and its own ability to pander to them, it is wrong on three pretty obvious counts:
It thinks that the “wanting the bad guy to get away with it insight” is profound and new, when, in fact, it is a cliché.
It doesn’t even explore the cliché, it simply references it to attempt to cover what it is really doing. We are not rooting for Travolta to get away with it, we are rooting for Jackman. But since the hero is under the power of someone else, he is free to do all the things he (or we) might be tempted to do in normal life, without having to bear the moral responsibility of having chosen to do them. At least “Fight Club” had the courage to really explore the dominant bad guy/weaker protagonist tension, rather than just exploit it.
The film neglects that in the most prominent examples where the audience has conflicted feelings and may want the villain to succeed, it is often in spite of his evil, not because of it. Films such as “The Godfather,” “A Simple Plan” or even the referenced “Dog Day Afternoon” humanize the characters that do evil by showing us the good in the worst of us and the bad in the best of us. In short they avoid the type of moral polarization and scapegoating that “Swordfish” relies upon. it’s not about wanting Travolta to get away with his crime, it’s about wanting Travolta to get away with just enough of it that Jackman can have his flirtation with his seamy side, yet retain his metaphorical (if not actual) virginity. And that’s what I call a “moral rape” fantasy.
I can’t give “Swordfish” an “F” because, quite frankly, it is a well made movie from a technical standpoint. The special effects and set chases are well done and effective. I’ve said I don’t like what the film does, but I have to admit that it does it very well. Those who have no moral objections to the ideas championed in the film will find it to be a fast, loud, glossy action thriller. “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” My Grade: D-