Directed by Dominic Sena. US 2001. 100 mins.

After a couple of major flops (Battleship Earth, Lucky Numbers), John Travolta is again in top form as the morally ambiguous protagonist of the techno thriller, Swordfish, playing a dangerously charismatic spy who propagates his own brand of patriotism. Boasting a sleek look and at least three outstanding set-pieces, Dominic Sena's action film could be criticised for having a convoluted plot that's both immoral and amoral. Nonetheless, as a summer movie, it delivers the goods, which bear the signature of its famed producer, Joel Silver: spectacular car chases, high-octane explosions that will make director John Woo envious, topless women with a profane mouth and loud electronic soundtrack. Box-office for this picture may not match Sena's previous action feature, the almost unwatchable Gone In 60 Seconds, which made over $100 million in the US alone, but it will enjoy a two-digit opening and a decent run in the next weeks to come.

In the tongue-in-cheek beginning, a cool Travolta, smoking a pipe and sipping coffee, addresses the audience directly with a monologue about what's wrong with Hollywood: it simply makes shitty movies and doesn't push the envelope far enough. Case in point: Dog Day Afternoon, which, he claims, features Al Pacino's best work. Why didn't Pacino's bank robber kill the hostages' Why didn't he live happily with his lover after the sex-change operation' Audiences like happy endings.

What ensues not only carries Dog Day Afternoon's plot way beyond Pacino's wild dreams, but also shows the vast changes in the conventions and mores of American action-thriller since the 1970s, to the point where it's impossible to determine who is a hero and who is a villain. Indeed, Swordfish unfolds in a world in which nothing is what it seems and characters' identities and allegiances are constantly shifting.

Like Pulp Fiction (which brought Travolta back to prominence), Skip Woods' script begins in a coffee shop while a bank heist is in full swing. The heist's perpetrator is a confident man named Gabriel Shear (Travolta), who has wrapped 22 hostages in dynamite, all but ignoring the surrounding SWAT troops and TV news cameras. The tale then flashes back to four days earlier in segments that occupy most of the screen time, with a last reel that propels the action forward to a most bizarre ending.

Story proper begins when Ginger (Berry), a beautiful and seductive woman, arrives at the dingy house of Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman) in an effort to recruit him to Gabriel's clandestine world for a special operation. One of the two best computer hackers in the world (the other, a Finish guy, gets shot while being interrogated by US Customs upon landing in LA in a brilliantly staged scene), Stanley has wreaked havoc on a controversial FBI high-tech cyber surveillance operation. He now lives penniless in a broken-down trailer, dreaming of the day he could reclaim his daughter Holly, who he lost in a nasty divorce.

Knowing his weak side, Ginger manipulates Stanley into meeting Gabriel, who immediately puts the former's skills to test - at gunpoint and while getting a blow job. Gabriel has set his sights on a hidden fund of $9.5 billion, accumulated in a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) money-laundering scheme, with strong ties to a corrupt senator (Sam Shepard). Gabriel's plan, for which he needs Stanley, is to raid the DEA slush fund, while storming the bank in broad daylight, using dozens of mercenaries, massive weaponry - and hostages.

The film-makers shrewdly exploit audiences' expectations by initially positioning Gabriel as a crooked villain and Stanley as a reluctant everyman hero, later adding various layers that confound those expectations. Needless to say, no member of the multi-ethnic cast is what he/she seems to be. Hence, when Stanley discovers that Ginger is wearing a wire, she pretends to be an undercover DEA agent trying to find out Gabriel's boss. There're also mixed signals about her relationship with Gabriel: are they just partners or also lovers'

Similarly, Roberts (Cheadle) turns out to be a burned-out cyber-crimes FBI agent with a dubious past of his own. The head of the country's largest task force on cyber crimes, Roberts was heroically responsible for arresting Stanley, but he snapped and shot a suspect, and his career went downhill from there.

The film-makers exploit the world of hackers as an ideal backdrop for a complex thriller, and they succeed in visualising cyberspace as a creepy milieu protected by firewalls, passwords and advanced security systems. But they fail in making this mysterious subculture accessible to ordinary viewers. Moreover, the holes in the plot and motivations are as big as the impressive explosions, though it's possible to enjoy the film without deciphering the characters' enigmatic behaviour. Sense and plausibility are not qualities one requires from action films, particularly the Joel Silver brand.

While the father-daughter bond brings heart to what is an extremely cold and calculating picture, this device has been used too many times. The tears in Stanley's eyes when he bids farewell to his daughter are just as fake as the sentimentality of the whole subplot.

It's a relief that scribe Woods, who has already borrowed from Tarantino in his indie effort Thursday, takes a different route after the Pulp Fiction-like beginning, although his script leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, considering the narrative's limitations, the entire ensemble does a terrific job, from the suave, arrogant, always-in control Travolta, to the handsome Jackman, who's bound to become a major star, to Berry, in a fractured femme fatale role.

Ultimately, though, it's the slick technical credits that put Swordfish over, particularly Paul Cameron's widescreen lensing that shows improvement from previous efforts, and gives the film an excitingly energetic look that compensates for its shortcomings.

Prod cos Silver Pictures, Village Roadshow, NPV Entertainment, Warner Film

US dist Warner Bros

Int'l dist Warner Bros

Exec prods Jim Van Wyck, Bruce Berman,

Prods Joel Silver and Jonathan Krane

Scr Skip Woods

Cinematography Paul Cameron

Prod des Jeff Mann

Ed Stephen Rivkin

Music Christopher Young

Main cast John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle