DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Swordfish, Antitrust, Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard franchise)


Title: Swordfish

Release Date: 2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 120 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company: Warner Brothers (AOL); Village Roadshow Pictures

Director; Writer:


Cast:  John Travolta, Hugh Jackman

Technical:  Panavision, digital

Relevance to HPPUB site: cyberterrorism, privacy, computer job skills

Review: Swordfish, from AOL Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow starring John Travolta and Hugh Jackman.  WB forsaked its Casablanca trademark and trashed it’s studio lot in fuzzy computer transmissions, as a lead into an opening apology, super terrorist Gabriel, played by a meaty “ain’t it cool” (Broken Arrow) John Travolta, some of whose roles seem rather bludgeonly sociopathic. Hollywood can’t make good movies, he said, because it has to weed things down and provide happy endings. It’s almost as if AOL-WB wants independent filmmakers to take them on! He proceeded to analyze Dog Day Afternoon (1974).  Once again, Hollywood wants to make a big budget movie about important ideas—this time, libertarian contributions around federal snooping of individuals on the Internet (Carnivore) and of federal profits off of the War on Drugs.  But we have to have all the special effects of what amount to rather large-scale domestic terrorism--the bombings, the car chases, the machine guns (magician Travolta always in good clothes, never scathed), and flying busses.  We need to deal with attention deficit disorder and get those suburban mall theaters full.  Computer hacker Jackman really does come out as a good guy, who had justifiable reasons to break the law—he doesn’t kill people, whereas Travolta’s character does—and maybe he’s a g-man after all.  If you want to do enough “good,” if you’re mad enough at other evils in the world, you can get away with anything.  Yup, that’s the McVeigh (#1) thing. It’s sociopathy and nothing more.   

 There is one great scene where Jackman gets his Turing “IQ test,” to break into a Pentagon site in less than 60 seconds.  Now, there are such things as computer geek squads, companies of puzzle-solvers who don’t date on Saturday nights.  (This comes across in the 2001 quirky thriller (with Ryan Phillippe) Antitrust.) And the information technology world has in recent years become less structured, with more emphasis on stand-up problem solving ability (like those math grad school exams—closed book, in class—of theorems that you haven’t seen before and hard to motivate) and less on regular procedures.  Well, you have to fight in the trenches to learn your trade, but maybe not type as fast as Jackman on the test.  There is such a thing as blindfold keyboard proficiency.  

Antitrust (2001, MGM, dir. Peter Howitt, wr. Howard Franklin, PG-13) stars Ryan Philippe as Milo Hoffman, a super-geek in new age server programming who his hired on to a Portland, OR film by Gary Winston (Tim Robbins) and finds there is more to this global network NURV than meets the eye. The movie seemed silly at the time, but it seems to have anticipated some of the shelters and havens and overseas hacking that we have today. Some commentators claim that Winston is based on Bill Gates, but the company in the movie is no Microsoft.

Live Free or Die Hard (2007, 20th Century Fox, dir. Len Wiseman, wr. Mark Bomback, 130 min) This is indeed a stereotyped Bruce Willis action movie, a collection of chases and action cliches, all of which stretch anything that could really happen -- yet on paper the story is there. The situation that it proposes -- that an Internet-based terrorist organization to precipitate a cyber 9/11, and that the terrorists could be disgruntled internal ex-fibbies is serious, even if the movie itself is preposterous.  German-born Bruce Willis plays NYPD detective John McClane, whose first task is to pick up hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) in Camden NJ (the low-income city near Philadelphia) in the prelude to the attack. He gets to Matt's apartment just as the real terrorists are coming, and the rest of the movie is a wild ride, from DC, going out to the Mt. Storm W Va power plant, then to Baltimore for another hacker, and a showdown where freeways collapse. Now it would seem that Shia La Beouf could have played the "kid", but Justin Long plays this role just right, as the slender, nervous, wispy but amazingly physical geek-kid, probably of early grad school age (in a way like "Sam" in Supernatural, or maybe like Jake 2.0), having the ability to use a gun when he has to. He is the one real character in the movie. Perhaps he is based more on Shawn Fanning, who invented Napster on his own laptop our of mere curiosity. (Fanning appeared in "The Italian Job", a somewhat similar film.) Long seems to have invented a polymorphic virus macro that all other hackers want and that can somehow both shut down all other viruses (that makes him more like Bill McAfee) or shut down the world's Internet -- giving geeky Matt the potential power to rule the world with his grain, without harming a soul physically. Yet, he seems to want to use his "power" for good, something that has evolved.  Timothy Olyphant plays Gabriel, the disgruntled ex-employee inside man "villain," and Kevin Smith is Warlock, the collaborating geek who spies on the world from the basement of his mother's row house in Baltimore, and uses CB radio just in case. 

One interesting effect happens early -- all the traffic signals in the nation turn green, resulting in wrecks at every intersection in the nation. Some of the movie presupposes that the NSA has a secret disaster recovery site at Woodlawn, at the Social Security Data Center (near Baltimore in real life -- Woodlawn was the name of my grade school, wouldn't you know.) One problem with the concept of the movie is that none of these government infrastructure systems are accessible to hackers from the Internet the way the movie claims they are -- this sort of thing was written about as a real danger around 2002, but it makes no sense, does it, for nuclear power plants to even be accessible from your home IP address. No, and they aren't.

The movie does make us think about the concept of "interdependence" -- often compared to individualism as we ponder how we would respond to massive terrorism incidents, pandemics or natural catastrophes. Global interdependence may be a vulnerability. It's "local interdependence" that the moralists are talking about. I didn't see any of that in this movie -- indeed, the hero Matt is the new individualist, ready to become Master of the Universe from a computer lab with no social interaction -- not even a girl friend. He was taken for a ride.

This film is the fourth in the Fox "Die Hard" franchise with Willis as the John McClane cop character. The first, prosaically "Die Hard" (1988, dir. John McTiernan, novel by Roderick Thorp) has terrorists holding hostages in an LA office, as set a new standard for police action thrillers at the time, as well as anticipating the terrorist threats that would develop in the future.  "Die Hard 2" (1990, dir. Renny Harlin, novel by Walter Wager) has terrorists controlling an airport and threatening multiple crashes -- something that might have predicted a mid 1990s plot over the Pacific ocean.  "Die Hard 3: With a Vengeance" (1995, dir. McTiernan) has a terrorist threatening multiple bombings in New York City, something that sounds like the London and Glasgow attempt in 2007.  There is a scene with a pay phone and a mathematical game that anticipates "Phone Booth" and there is bombing of a subway train, with the train derailing and cars falling over into the station, that is quite spectacular. As silly as the movies seemed to critics, it seems like Hollywood (as well as some obscure novelists) had the imagination that our administration and CIA and NSA lacked before 9/11. AMC showed the movie on 8/11/2007, one day after media outlets reported rumors of an Al Qaeda terrorist "dirty bomb" plot in New York City that did not turn out to be credible.  



Related reviews: Pearl Harbor

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