Warner Bros. // 2001 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 22nd, 2006
"You know the problem with Hollywood is -- they make sh*t. Unbelievable, unremarkable, sh*t."
With the launch of the HD DVD format, early adopters of the technology face a familiar problem last experienced circa 1997: lack of media selection. Toshiba has led the way with the first consumer-ready player, the HD-1A (and the higher-priced, minimally upgraded HD-X1A), offered alongside a mere four titles on April 18, 2006. DVD Forum member studios Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures assisted the launch and are continuing authorized release of their works to give eager consumers more to view in the dazzling new format (how many times can you watch The Last Samurai, anyway?). And, as with the release of SD (Standard Definition) DVD from what seems a lifetime ago, some are grumbling that initial film releases are, well, spotty at best. So, on the second Tuesday after launch, Warner Brothers delivered the 2001 quirky cyber-crime excursion, Swordfish, on HD DVD. The question that persists, trite though it may be, is can you polish a turd?
Gabriel Shear (John Travolta, Broken Arrow) is a self-proclaimed patriot whose enigmatic style and unsteady behavior gives cause to question his true motives: is he acting as an anti-terrorist (as he asserts) intent to up the ante against any force or faction that would assault US interests, or is he merely an ambitious bank robber? Seems Gabriel has his sights set upon electronically heisting $9 billion from a secret DEA slush, the result of a defunct government operation, "Swordfish." Regardless whether his intention is to further fund his anti-terrorist efforts or to line his own pockets, he's going to need some help. To crack into the government accounts where the forgotten fortune resides, he sends his curvaceous assistant, Ginger (Halle Berry, Monster's Ball) to secure ex-felon and renowned hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman, X-Men: The Last Stand). Knowing Jobson is desperately trying to reclaim custody of his young daughter, Gabriel offers Stanley $10 million dollars to code an elaborate worm virus (a Hydra) that will effectively infiltrate the DEA system, retrieve the loot, and destroy all residual evidence. Of course, in the world of government intrigue and congressional indiscretions, nothing's so simple. Therefore, the story swings wildly around the characters' multiple identities, as seemingly everyone is some sort of double- or triple-agent. The action includes a desperate hostage standoff complete with human claymore bombs, a getaway bus that is airlifted across the L.A. skyline, and an explosive rooftop climax.
Swordfish was originally released theatrically in June 2001, and while its execution was a bit uneven, its anti-terrorism perspective was nonetheless intriguing. Of course, a mere three months later, terrorism showed its ugly face on US soil and made this Hollywood distraction look more than a bit silly and, yes, undersized. Released to SD-DVD in October 2001, the terrorism plotline made some potential viewers uncomfortable. Now, with almost five years behind us, Swordfish gets another chance to make its pitch, enhanced to a stunning 1080p resolution and a boasting an immersive Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) soundtrack. The image quality here is just incredible, bearing every tiny detail previously impossible in even the best SD renditions. From the dimples on Stanley's golf balls to the goose pimples on Ginger's nipples (yes, this is the picture where we get full view of Halle's berries), the technology delivers terrifically here. The enhanced resolution makes every pore on the actor's faces vividly visible. Beyond this, the coloring is excellent with skin tones perfectly rendered and ambient lighting presented so smoothly and realistically that every scene takes on a remarkable dimensionality. The transfer is completely devoid of visible compression artifacts -- no aliasing, no moiré effect, no ringing. The film's production design, however, unwittingly works against the HD delivery, with many of the key action set pieces filmed in the amber glow of sunrise. And, if you've never seen Swordfish, don't worry that your HD DVD player may be malfunctioning; the opening of the picture includes deliberate electronic noise over the studio logos and intentional unsteady focus pull during Travolta's opening exposition.
On the audio side, you'll find the DD+ track doubles the aural assault in comparison to the previous SD release. The signature sequence here -- the 360-degree explosion -- absolutely centers you in the middle of the most devastating claymore detonation, swirling the destruction around you and raining steel ball-bearings from all around the room. Every explosion packs a new punch thanks to the enhanced audio and every gunshot enlists an appropriately smooth and complimentary eruption from the LFE channel. It's not a track mired in unrelenting bombast, however, as the dialogue always remains easy to understand and even the tiniest sound effects are never upstaged nor overridden, miraculously. Additional tracks include a French dub of the DD+ track as well as a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. (Incidentally, the audio on the DD+ mix is presented at normal levels, not about 10db lower than Warner's previous few HD DVD titles.)
OK, but does this impressive new-tech treatment make Swordfish a better picture? Well, if you disliked the film before, it's unlikely you'll find redemption here. Then again, if you can look a the picture from the perspective of it being exactly what it presents itself as -- a thrilling popcorn pic full of excitement, explosions, and Halle Berry's exposé -- then it's a fun ride made all the more enjoyable by the polished presentation. Travolta is spot-on cool here and truly inspires excellent performances from Jackman and Don Cheadle (Crash). Halle Berry's performance is passable not she doesn't seem to have the acting chops to keep up with her scenery-chewing peers. If you absolutely hated the picture before, this new HD release is hardly likely to change your mind. So why did it make the early HD release list? Arguably for three reasons: the 360-degree explosion and Berry's breasts. End of story.
The extras on this disc are the same as appeared on the earlier SD release, all presented in standard definition. Unfortunately, much of this material is quite "fluffy," including the 15-minute featurette, "HBO First Look: Swordfish," the 12-minute interview segments in "In Conversation," and even director Dominic Sena's feature-length commentary. All of these elements include a significant amount of backslapping and self-congratulations. Oh well. There's a behind-the-scenes segment, "Effects in Focus: The Flying Bus," and a couple of alternate endings, both non-anamorphic and neither working as well as the film's final cut conclusion. The extras wrap up with an anamorphically enhanced theatrical trailer and an audio mix of the film's pounding techno tracks.
Is Swordfish crap? Is it just more mindless waste-matter being futilely pressed up against a buffing wheel to dazzle the eye in HD while the mind is asked to take a holiday? Well, sure it is and so what? Intended to be fun, it should be "consumed" as such. Fire up your HD panel, power up your surround system, and enjoy. You'll be glad you did.
When a new home video format is introduced, don't always expect Academy Award-winning material will be first out of the gate to load into virgin disc trays. Recall how New Line's Platinum Series releases were sometimes lowbrow but high performing, technologically. It's the same story with HD DVD, perhaps, and if you're looking for a fun demonstration of what this new technology can do, drop Swordfish into the tray and prepare to have some genuine popcorn-munching fun.
The prosecution should lighten up; there's nothing wrong with some simple fun. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2006 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Featurette: "HBO First Look: Swordfish"
* Featurette: "Effects in Focus: The Flying Bus"
* Interviews: "In Conversation"
* Alternate Endings
* Audio Tracks