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"Swordfish" more than qualifies as pure escapist entertainment of the summer movie variety.

Reeling Us In

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With the steamy techno-thriller "Swordfish," John Travolta and mega-action producer Joel Silver return to the roots of their former film success. Whether by design or financial necessity, the pair has fashioned this season's first true "summer movie." Starting and ending with bangin' special effects that register way off the "Wow" scale, Silver hearkens back to his "Die Hard" and "Speed" heyday while Travolta reprises the evil yet oh-so cool villain that relaunched his career. The result is a movie that's much more entertaining than any other of the hyped-up, big-bucks extravaganzas that have been released so far this summer.

But before you rush out to the theater to catch "Swordfish," remember there are a few downsides to being a quintessential "summer movie." First, "Swordfish" is awash in shallow, underdeveloped characters. Second, it flounders around between action scenes, because the plot's got more holes in it than a pound of premium Swiss. While Skip Woods' script is often preposterous, requiring the suspension of disbelief practically from the opening sequence, it's never dumb. It even pokes enough fun at itself to keep us fully aware that we are watching a movie.

With "Swordfish," director Dominic Sena delivers a full-throttle, testosterone and adrenaline kick that shows off his skills much better than his oddly unthrilling chase-dream "Gone In 60 Seconds." He doesn't miss the boat here, giving his target male audience just what they crave — lots of fiery explosions and chases; high-tech gadgets and gizmos; and high-profile nudity.

Travolta plays Gabriel Shear, a man so wealthy and powerful that no one or thing is beyond his reach. But as with all megalomaniacs, he's not satisfied. He doesn't just want more, he wants it all. That's why he's planning a $9.5 billion electronic heist. Those ill-gotten gains supposedly will be used to finance his one-man, anti-terrorist terrorist activities. His small but loyal crew includes the sexy Ginger (Halle Berry) and the scary Marco (Vinnie Jones). To do the job right, Shear needs the services of superhacker Stanley Johnson (Hugh Jackman). Stanley, however, isn't exactly interested, considering he just got out of prison and isn't looking for a return trip.

Like all charismatic villains, Shear ups the ante: Help him and he'll help Stanley regain custody of his daughter (Camryn Grimes), who's currently living with her porn-star mom. (Truly, could I make this stuff up?!?) Of course, Jackman's Johnson agrees, especially after some sexy coercion from Ginger.

As convoluted as the plot is, Woods and Sena decide to start the story in the middle, flashing back for about an hour to get the limited backstories of certain characters in place and to set the stage for the final explosive confrontation. Think "Speed" and that airborne bus, but extend the flight time as well as what's at stake. But there's plenty of secondary mayhem along the way, including a footrace down an almost vertical cliff and a digitally rendered, slo-mo explosion with the camera in a 360-degree pan. Whenever things teeter on the edge of boring, Sena tosses in a Berry or another sexy woman.

Travolta seems to enjoy his role as the nefarious Shear, but whether it is enough to get folks to forget about "Battlefield Earth" or "Lucky Numbers" remains to be seen. He was also much more menacing in "Face/Off," "Pulp Fiction" and even "Broken Arrow" than here. Jackman, on the other hand, just keeps getting better. After a romantic interlude with Ashley Judd in "Someone Like You," he's back in full "X-Men" mode, playing an average guy just trying to save his family. Sadly though, his Stanley Johnson falls way short of a similar "pressed-upon" hero — "Die Hard's" John McClane. And Berry delivers exactly what the filmmakers want — a sexy presence and little else.

Loud, flashy and violent, "Swordfish" obviously had high-tech hopes of being the next "Mission Impossible" or "Matrix." Though it falls short of that goal, "Swordfish" more than qualifies as pure escapist entertainment of the summer-movie variety.

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