Follow TV Tropes


Film / Swordfish

Go To

Swordfish is a 2001 hacker film directed by Dominic Sena, starring John Travolta, X-Men Film Series actors Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry (and future X-actor, Vinnie Jones), along with the future War Machine, Don Cheadle. Drea de Matteo briefly stars as Stanley's ex-wife.

The plot revolves around Stanley Jobson (Jackman), a paroled hacker who is drawn into a complicated Travoltian Gambit Roulette by Gabriel Shear (Travolta) and his beautiful assistant Ginger (Berry). Stanley, in desperate need of money to gain custody of his daughter, agrees to help Gabriel steal money from the government to run his vigilante counter-terrorism unit.

The idea for the title of this movie — although it's not mentioned in the film — comes from the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers where one of the brothers is guarding a door, and is told not to let anyone in unless they know the password, which is "swordfish".

Swordfish provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Vinnie Jones' character does not say much, but the scene in which he talks the most is a rather verbose "don't be a hero" spiel he tells some hostages.
  • Anti-Hero: Stanley Jobson is the unscrupulous type. He helps Gabriel steal money from the government in his intention to run his vigilante counter-terrorism unit.
  • Artistic License – Economics: Gabriel reveals to Stanley early on that the $9.5 billion he intends to steal started out as a mere $400 million government slush fund that accrued interest over a runtime of 15 years. Growth like that would require interest rates of roughly 24%, which was (and still is) virtually impossible to get with any sort of investment any government would probably opt for.
    • Given that this is an illegal slush fund intended to fund government-sponsored terrorism, it's likely that it's invested in illicit things as well.
  • Asshole Victim: Stanley is a whole lot more concerned that Gabriel kidnapped his daughter to force him to do what Gabriel wants than the fact that in order to do so Gabriel killed his harpy ex-wife and her new husband, a porno film magnate (who is not seen much, but Roberts' asshole subordinates gleefully imply is the kind of man who would turn his own step-daughter into one more of his porn actresses the moment he could legally get away with it).
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Gabriel Shear and Ginger Knowles fake their own deaths and get away rich, evading justice. They use the money to fund a worldwide anti-terrorism campaign. Although in the alternate ending on the DVD, it becomes a Meaningless Villain Victory, as after the bad guys fake their deaths, Stanley Jobson is shown in a cafe with his daughter and using a laptop to steal all their money and donate it to charity, so the bad guys end up having to leave the country completely broke.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Sort of. Any Finnish speaker will tell you that the "language" spoken by the Finnish hacker and his legal counsel is most definitely not Finnish (it's actually German, and changed to actual Finnish in the German dub, where he said "Haista paska senkin mulkku", which means, "Fuck you, you dick").
  • Bullet Time: When the hostage explodes in the opening, the film moves into Bullet Time and does an Orbital Shot to showcase the damage done to everyone in the vicinity.
  • Bus Full of Innocents: Gabriel has himself, his henchmen, and hostages moved into a bus to escape.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Gabriel's lecture to Stan about famous magician Harry Houdini and the importance of "misdirection" helps Stan later realise that "Gabriel" didn't die in the helicopter that Stan shot down.
  • Conversational Troping: In the opening scene, Gabriel is discussing Ending Tropes with Stanley and Agent Roberts. He compares the hostage situation he is leading with the one in Dog Day Afternoon, and argues that it would be more realistic if the hostage takers in that movie would have been much more cruel, killing multiple hostages from the start, and getting away with the money. Stanley and Roberts argue that audiences will expect a Happy Ending, and that the bad guy can't win to force home An Aesop that crime doesn't pay. Of course, they're trying to invoke it because they don't want Gabriel to do just that to his hostages. It's all foreshadowing to this film's ending, in which Gabriel does get the money and wins.
  • Cool Car: The TVR Tuscan that Gabriel drives. Powerful four-litre engine, lightweight fibreglass body, unique chameleon-style paint, machine gun in the trunk.
  • Custody Battle: Stanley's motivation for joining Gabriel's heist; his drug-addicted ex wife was given full custody of their daughter because of Stan's cyber crimes record. Her new husband is a sleazy porn producer who uses his money and connections to keep them separated, and Gabriel promises Stan enough cash to hire good lawyers and get his daughter back.
  • Disney Villain Death: Subverted. Marco (Vinnie Jones) falls out of the bus when it is hanging vertically under the transport helicopter carrying it, along with a hostage. They fall to their deaths, but halfway down the bomb that was strapped to the hostage suddenly explodes, killing them both before they can hit the ground.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Gabriel/Black Cell's plan to end terrorism is to inflict even worse acts upon the terrorists and their sponsors.
    Gabriel: They bomb a church, we bomb ten. They hijack a plane, we take out an airport. They execute American tourists, we tactically nuke an entire city. Our job is to make terrorism so horrific that it becomes unthinkable to attack Americans.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: After Stanley sees Ginger bathing topless, he bumps into a table when he leaves. Justified by the fact that Gabriel analogizes himself to a magician and is really using her as a covert Lovely Assistant.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: While his opening spiel about Dog Day Afternoon foreshadows a lot about Gabriel, especially the fact that he wins, he doesn't seems to recall that the film was Based on a True Story and a product of its time, and thus the reason Sonny didn't "win" was because the real "Sonny" didn't win, and Sonny didn't "start killing hostages right off the bat" like Gabriel proposes both because the real "Sonny" didn't do it and because doing so would completely annihilate any sympathy the audience was supposed to have for Sonny.
  • The Dragon: Gabriel Shear. Turns out to be Dragon-in-Chief. Until he kills the senator for wanting to stop the operation, and continues the operation.
  • Elite Agents Above the Law: The mysterious, charismatic Gabriel Shear is revealed to be the head of a government ghost cell tasked with dishing out Disproportionate Retribution on terrorists and other threats to the United States, and has a massive arsenal and bank account to do it with. Even THIS turns out to not be enough for him, and he plots to rob the World Bank and go fully renegade, killing his only Senate handler along the way.
  • Explosive Leash: Completed with over two kilograms of stainless steel balls, turning each hostage into "the world's largest claymore mines."
  • Faking the Dead:
    • Gabriel Shear kills his female subordinate to show that he is serious. Only she's not really dead, obviously.
    • The body of the real Gabriel Shear (a Mossad agent) was in the wreck to make everyone think the Dragon-in-Chief was dead. See also Chekhov's Gun.
  • False Flag Operation: Gabriel Shear is part of a secret U.S. government agency that plans to attack terrorist states in more horrific ways than attacks they have supported, ostensibly as right-wing terrorists themselves. The idea is that the terrorist states will become too afraid of a group that can carry out such attacks that none would dare support a group for attacking the U.S. Of course, it first requires they make a terrorist attack on US soil themselves, partly to seize a DEA slush fund for their bankroll (since the secret government money gets cut off), which helps establish their terrorist bonafides at the same time.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: Axl Torvalds.
  • Fanservice: Seems to be Halle Berry's main purpose in the movie. Also in-universe her character to Stanley.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: During the blowjob scene, if you watch closely, one line of code Stanley input is a comment. When executing a program, all lines of comments are ignored and don't do anything. When programming, putting comments is important so you remember what was the purpose of your code and allow other programmers to understand it. However, why on Earth would you take the time to put a comment when someone is about to shoot you in the brain if you don't hack fast enough?
  • Gambit Roulette: Stan being able to Hollywood-Hack a 1,024-bit encryption in 1 minute, the FBI having no actual rescue plan for a hostage situation, not-dead Ginger escaping before the FBI could rush the bank and find her, the airlifted bus not falling completely, Stan successfully blowing up Gabriel's chopper. Any number of these things could have derailed the plan.
  • Gambit Pileup: The entire plot. It's hard to make heads or tails out of everything — who's working for who, what the endgame is for everyone, etc. — until the very end. Maybe.
    Roger Ebert: Swordfish looks like the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It's skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters.
  • Genre Savvy: Gabriel opens the film pondering the potential success of a movie where the hostage taker gets away with everything. He even discusses the story and the mistakes the robbers made in the bank robbery film Dog Day Afternoon. During the hostage negotiation, he even orders a plane on a runway. By the end of the film, he and Ginger come out on top over Stan, their plan a complete success.
  • Guns Akimbo: Gabriel dual wields a pair of handguns in the car chase scene when he shoots at the attackers at both his sides.
  • Hacker Cave: The room with the custom supercomputer Gabriel obtained for Stan's part of the plan definitely fits.
  • Hate Sink: Stanley's ex-wife Melissa manages to be the most unpleasant character in the film. Dominic Sena told Drea de Matteo, "Make the audience hate you right away."
  • Hollywood Hacking: The dialogue describing the actual hacking is pure technobabble. The "hacking" shown in the beginning is nothing more than a Linux file directory being shown scrolling over and over again.
  • Hypocrite: Stanley's ex-wife Melissa refuses to let him speak and see with their daughter, claiming he's a horrible parent to raise her, despite the fact she's a drunk and a porn star and her new husband is a porn director, which is way worse than a hacker.
  • In Medias Res: The film starts with a scene close to the end of the film, just to kick the plot off with a big explosion.
  • Involuntary Charity Donation: Only as an alternate ending on the VHS version (also featured as a DVD extra), where the hacker transferred money while his daughter watched. The canonical ending has the bad guys get away with the money.
  • Ironic Echo: Gabriel counting down from 60 seconds while Stanley frantically hacks into a supposedly "impenetrable" security system, with the implication that someone will die if he fails to do so in time, happens both at the beginning and the end of the movie.
  • Lady in Red: Ginger's first scene, and also Stanley's first encounter with her, has her in a sexy red dress with a very short skirt. Predictably, it leads to some very intense Male Gaze both In-Universe and out.
  • Logo Joke: The studio's logos at the start of the film appear flickering like on a cheap video camera.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Gabriel Shear is working under Senator James Reisman. Up until Reisman tries to have him killed, at which point all bets are off.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The opening of the film has the SWAT team "rescue" a hostage being shown off to demonstrate the fancy explosives Gabriel has equipped them with. They get all of twenty feet before the Explosive Leash kicks in and blows up a sizable chuck of the police force on-scene.
  • Operation: [Blank]: "Black Cell" (the secret government anti-terror (not anti-terrorist, anti-terror) organization run by Gabriel Shear) and "Swordfish" (the DEA slush-fund operation that is central to the climactic heist).
  • Playful Hacker: Stanley Jobson. Arguably Deconstructed — he's got the requisite madskillz and moral compass, but this just means The Government is that much more smug when they catch up with him and punish him for his actions: destroying the FBI Carnivore program was actually praised by enough of the public to force them to reduce his prison sentence in favor of paroling him away from computers. But as said parole makes it impossible for him to use his computer skills, he's reduced to welfare, his wife divorces him, and a judge awards the alcoholic with their daughter - and she marries the porn king she works for.
  • The Password Is Always "Swordfish": Surprisingly averted. Except at the end, where the password is actually "swordfish". Otherwise, there are no passwords to speak of.
    • "Password: Swordfish" is the tagline/unofficial title of the film and the official title in Germany, Brazil and Russia. In Latin America the title is "Swordfish: Access Authorized", which also brings up this trope.
  • Police Brutality: FBI Agent J.T. Roberts brags to Torvalds that he used to be Secret Service until he shot an uncooperative hacker in the hand. He's also fairly dismissive of the utter cesspit he made of Jobson's life as punishment for sabotaging Carnivore. Oh, and he has a big smile on his face when one of his subordinates hits a fleeing Jobson with his car.
  • Rape by Proxy: Gabriel forces Stanley at gunpoint to hack into the mainframe of the United States Department of Defense, while he gets a blowjob from a woman who works for Gabriel. Afterwards Stanley is more pissed off about the gun to his head than the fact that he was forced into sex, partly because the film implies the "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization.
  • Renegade Splinter Faction: Black Cell, a covert government agency created to protect America at any cost. Already going extreme lengths, Gabriel (who leads the unit) goes full renegade when he kills the senator overseeing the unit. Even after this they operate by their original mandate, with the film's epilogue having a reporter talking about the "mysterious" explosion of a yacht owned by a man suspected of financially supporting terrorists.
  • Revised Ending: The DVD version contains an alternative ending wherein Ginger is told in the bank that the account is already almost empty, alluding to the possibility that Stanley has played one final trick on them and taken the money himself. When Ginger tells Gabriel about this, he takes it in stride and asks her to join him on a trip to Istanbul. In a companion scene to the alternate ending, Stanley is shown on a trip with his daughter in a brand new RV. While eating at a diner, Stanley is shown transferring billions of dollars to various charities before continuing his trip.
  • Shameless Fanservice Girl: Stanley is visibly embarrassed when he catches Ginger topless by the pool. He bumps into a table when he leaves. Ginger does not care. She even enjoys embarrassing Stanley.
  • Short-Lived Aerial Escape: Gabriel just so happens to have a helicopter on hand and tries to use it to escape in, only for Stan to blow it up with a rocket-propelled grenade. Turns out it's all part of his game of Gambit Roulette.
  • Shout-Out: The character Axl Torvalds is named after Linus Torvalds, who wrote the Linux Kernel. Assistant Director Bill Joy is named after Bill Joy, co-founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems.
  • Sky Heist: During the climactic bank robbery, Gabriel Shear arranges for his crew and hostages to be transported to an airport in a bus he prepared, but the destination is just a misdirection. His real escape strategy is to have a helicopter fly over the bus while it is driving, hook its cables to the bus's modified frame, and lift the whole thing away from the police convoy (unfortunately the flight gets complicated when the cables start breaking...).
  • Title Drop: "Swordfish" is the name of the DEA black project that produced the slush fund the villain wishes to steal.
  • Villain Opening Scene: The movie opens with Gabriel monologuing about the changes he would do to Dog Day Afternoon to make it a film where Sonny wins. It involves an escalation in brutality on Sonny's part to scare the cops into complying.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Gabriel's criminal organization turns to be a secret, unofficial paramilitary unit whose mandate is to defeat terrorism by striking against suspected terrorists and the countries that harbor them. They also fund their activities with high-end crimes, not much caring how many lives it will cost.


Video Example(s):



Bank robbers strap bombs with ball bearings attached, which does some serious damage when one hostage is almost "rescued".

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / ExplosiveLeash

Media sources: