It's practically the law when it comes to launching a new home video format -- action rules. The reasoning goes that early adopters are primarily young men with money, so of course they only love guns, bombs and babes (and not necessarily in that order). So just like the debut of standard DVD almost a decade ago, HD-DVD is hitting the market backed almost solely by big-budget action extravaganzas like 'Swordfish.' Which wouldn't be such a bad thing, except 'Swordfish' isn't a particularly memorable example of the genre.
Meet Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman). He's the kind of good-looking computer hacker that exists only in Hollywood-land -- he's impossibly good-looking, with a beautiful ex-wife, a WB-ready daughter, and a Movie Plot Problem tailored-made for the film's villain to exploit -- in this case he's currently forbidden to ever touch a computer again after being busted by the government for hacker fraud. But then he's "recruited" by Gabriel Shear (John Travolta), the head of a covert counter-terrorist unit called Black Cell, who is out to nab $9.5 billion in DEA money locked away in government trust. Shear wants to hijack the money to fund a raise-the-stakes vengeance war against international terrorism, but it's all locked away behind super-encryption. So he cherry-picks Stanley to be his hacker -- but who can you trust when everyone is a criminal?
Yes, 'Swordfish' is pretty stupid. And yes, for an action movie, it more or less delivers the goods -- lots of car chases, gunfire, loud explosions and Halle Berry's now-infamous nude scene. But it all just feels so anonymous. Which is the kiss of death for an action movie if it hopes to achieve any resonance once we leave the theater. Because we care little about the plot (all this already-dated stuff about hackers and pre-9/11 terrorism) and even less about the characters, there is no real consequence to anything. It never feels like anything is truly on the line for Jobson -- all that backstory nonsense about his wife and kid is incredibly formulaic -- so there isn't much for us to be engaged by except all those explosions and special effects. How very 2001.
Watching 'Swordfish' five years on, the film is only barely memorable, solely because it's a signpost for the talent whose careers it helped launched. There's Berry, in her first above-the-line credit (too bad all she does is show her breasts and do a light-version precursor to her Bond girl role in 'Die Another Day'), and Jackman, carrying his first picture. He's actually the best thing about the flick -- acting as if it mattered -- and manages to bring some measure of charm to what is a pretty boring character. Also popping up is a pre-Oscar nom Don Cheadle, one-time "It" girl Drea De Matteo, and future X-Man Vinnie Jones.
Last but not least, there is Travolta (how could I forget?) At the time of 'Swordfish,' he was enjoying another career resurgence post-'Pulp Fiction.' But though he does his best trying to play oily evil, it only comes off as more silly than scary. His opening 'Fiction'-esque anti-Hollywood monologue is a jaw-dropper, because the filmmakers seem to be cluelessly mocking the very kind of film they've made. Travolta's Shear is not nearly as hip and edgy a villain as the moviemakers think he is, and perhaps that's the problem with 'Swordfish' itself -- it's hard to be cool when you're nothing but desperate.
I have to admit I am not really that fond of the visual style of 'Swordfish.' It comes out of that new school of Hollywood moviemaking that lays on the gloss in every shot, with the sheen so pumped-up I'm constantly distracted by the unreality of it all. Everything is too shiny, too colorful, too slick. It also means that even the increased resolution of HD-DVD can't offer as great an improvement over the standard DVD release as it should -- all that stylized image processing decreases maximum perceived depth and clarity (at least to my eyes), so 'Swordfish' gets a good but not revelatory bump in high-def.
Still, this is a good-looking transfer. Colors are very well saturated, and considerably more deep and pure than the standard DVD release (thanks no doubt to HD-DVD expanded colorspace). I also liked how clean they look -- there is surprisingly little film grain apparent, and no discernible noise, which can still be a problem on standard DVD transfers. The film also looks a bit more three-dimensional on HD-DVD, with fine details (especially in long shots and busy backgrounds) more readily visible. Also impressive is how much better pre-recorded high-def formats like HD-DVD handle fast action compared to over-the-air and satellite broadcasts -- there is no macroblocking or pixelization, even on the most frenzied MTV-esque scenes. Warner's compression team is to be commended on a job that continues to be well done.
Presented in English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround, 'Swordfish' gets a better high-def bump with its soundtrack. I could detect the difference (not massive, but prominent) right upfront -- the film's action setpiece actually comes in the very first scene. The 'Matrix'-esque "girl with bomb explodes" sequence features a complete 360-degree slo-mo pan of the detonation, complete with sound effects ping-ponging all over the place. It is sonically pretty cool -- surround use is very aggressive, with lots of nifty little discrete sounds in the rears, excellent separation of the effects and very deep, low bass. The Dolby Digital-Plus adds a bit more reality and transparency to the scene, thanks to the format's higher bitrate. This still sounds great in "plain old" Dolby Digital 5.1, but the extras "plus" does give the track some extra oomph.
The rest of the soundtrack, however, never quite matches that scene. Granted, the whole movie is pretty bombastic -- "subtlety" is not a word in the sonic dictionary of 'Swordfish.' The few dialogue scenes are overshadowed by all the relentless techno music and gunfire. It certainly delivers on the whiz-bang factor -- the rears are almost constantly engaged throughout, and the soundfield is pretty spacious with excellent separation across all channels. However, there just isn't much atmosphere to be found, with everything so over-the-top it all gets to be a bit monotonous after a while. Dialogue is also often a bit smothered by the effects, and I found myself having to turn down the volume a bit whenever anyone wasn't talking to keep things better balanced. But if you like your soundtracks loud and noisy, 'Swordfish' certainly fits the bill.
Yep, another straight port of the extras from the standard DVD release. But the goodies on 'Swordfish are surprisingly fun even if they are reheated, if only because I enjoyed them in the way I don't think they were intended. Nothing is more amusing than watching actors like Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry struggle to come up with some way to spin 'Swordfish' into anything more than what it is -- a rote action movie meant to gather dust on the back shelf of Blockbuster.
The majority of the disc's main video-based supplements are just an assortment of EPK interviews and TV specials, the usual promo fluff that is all about selling the movie and little else. First up is the 24-minute HBO First Look Special on the making of the movie, which is formulaic at best. Everyone is excited about the film, it's gonna rock, the action is great, we all love John Travolta, etc. The pre-release buzz continues on the 15 minutes of "In Conversation" cast and crew interviews, including Travolta, Jackman, Berry, director Dominic Sena and producer Joel Silver. Nothing unexpected here, though it is amusing to hear Berry laugh about her famous nude scene. Curious as to how she feels these days.
Other extras include the 7-minute "Effects in Focus: The Flying Bus," which dissects the film's climactic action sequence, which today doesn't seem all that explosive. There is also an annoying "Planet Rock" club reel music video, which is just an annoying techno song set to film clips. Sena also provides optional commentary to the film's two alternate endings, which are presented in poor 480i video that looks like it came right off the AVID. Neither ending is particularly good, and it is easy to see why the final version needed to be reshot. The last of the video-based extras is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
The disc's final major supplement is an audio commentary by director Dominic Sena. Though it is hard to get too excited about a commentary for a film this forgettable, it is probably the best extra on the disc. Sena is pretty talkative, covering all aspects of the production, particularly his approach to action and the film's visual style. I was hoping for a bit more on the cast and working with the irascible Silver, but Sena is purely diplomatic.
'Swordfish' is the kind of routine action flick that fades from the memory within minutes. It is more notable now as a signpost of the careers it helped further, including Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry. But if you're a fan of the film, this is a perfectly fine HD-DVD release, if nothing fancy -- a better transfer than the standard DVD, plus a good soundtrack and the same extras as before. Still, it feels more like a toss-off release to prime the HD-DVD pump than a concentrated effort on Warner's part to do something exciting with the format. But, then, that is all 'Swordfish' really deserves.