February, 2006, Thriller

Directed by:Richard Loncraine

Starring:Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Robert Patrick, with Robert Forster, and and Alan Arkin

The shelf-life of an American male movie star has always been an amalgam of talent, audience appeal and a shrewd choice of the right roles; Cary Grant (1904-’86) bowed out at age 62 playing cupid for Samantha Egger in Walk, Don’t Run, but he was magnetic right up to the end of his career; just three years earlier he was the perfect romantic foil for Audrey Hepburn in Charade. Burt Lancaster, (1913-1994) acted in television parts until a few months before his death at age 81, and made memorable appearances as the male lead in films even after he reached 65, (Go Tell The Spartans, Atlantic City, Local Hero). Four score on, Paul Newman still graces the boards, while Clint Eastwood, (Million Dollar Baby) remains active both in front of and behind the camera at 76. But when, (if ever) is it too late to play the lead in that staple of Hollywood genres, the action thriller? Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro, (66 and 63 respectively) have moved on to other types of material, but 64-year old Harrison Ford is still at it in this film, (as is Michael Douglas, 62 this September, who heads the cast of The Sentinel, out next month.) Should Ford acknowledge the passage of time and move on? And if so, to what?

Ford’s career as an action hero has benefited greatly from not one but three “franchise” roles - - as Han Solo in the Star wars films, Indiana Jones in yet another Spielberg series and as Jack Ryan in successive adaptations of popular Tom Clancy novels. He’s interspersed these parts with other work calling for the same type of high physical/ low emotional gravitas, (Witness, The Fugitive, Air Force One) and occasional labored attempts at humor, (Six Days, Seven Nights, Hollywood Homicide). He’s become popular and “bankable” without ever developing a riveting screen presence. How long can he keep it up? 

In Firewall, Ford plays Jack Stanfield, head of computer systems for a Seattle-based bank that’s being acquired by a larger mid-western rival. He lives with his architect wife Beth, (Virginia Madsen) a teenage daughter and an eight year old son in an inexplicably expensive house of Beth’s design while worrying, quite appropriately, about what impact the merger will have on his career. When Bill Cox, (Paul Bettany) a putative investment banker, offers Jack an intriguing business opportunity, he finds himself sucked into a carefully designed hoax; Cox holds Jack’s family hostage, forcing the reluctant computer expert to sabotage the computer systems he’s invented in order to electronically steal a hundred million dollars. There are lots of i-pods, mobile phones and encrypted programs to parse through here, along with random events which force both captor and captive to improvise their respective next moves, each trying to outwit the other in rounds of mayhem which euclasite to a frenzied (and ridiculously extruded) climax.

The opening scenes of Firewall have a creepy vitality; the premise isn’t new, but a number of the story’s details, (rain-slicked streets, intrusive colleagues and high-tech gadgets designed to spy on Jack as he goes about defeating his own creations) offer enough surprises to keep the action flowing and the audience attentive. A sub-plot involving Robert Forster as the bank’s head of security generates an unexpected about-face that’s both clever and perfectly attuned to the material. As Cox, Bettany brings just the right blend of cocky smugness and thuggish brutality to his role as a criminal mastermind; his British accent adds a note of quiet menace to even the most neutral utterance. This fine actor, (the ship’s doctor in Master & Commander) should play the villain more often.     

But thrillers work best when they focus either on appealing characters or an intriguing plot, one which can keep the audience in doubt about the final outcome until a well-placed climax ties up any loose ends in the storyline and allows the hero to satisfactorily best the villain. Opting for the latter route, first-time screenwriter Joe Forte’s ability to create a credible plot passes muster, but his skill in writing interesting dialogue is unfortunately no greater than Ford’s ability to deliver it; the result is a movie that comes out of the starting gate well, then falters in the backstretch and runs well out of the money down to the wire.

Forster and the always effective Allan Arkin are put to good, (but far too brief) use here in ancillary roles, while Madsen’s considerable talents, (i.e. Sideways) are simply wasted; the script makes her Beth a supportive helpmate, but little more than a hand-wringing damsel in distress. The other characters could have been lifted out of any number of episodes in a long running T.V. police drama. 

Audiences have seen Ford in this type of role for almost three decades; his  facial expression of choice, (somewhere between rictus and  leering grin) is meant to covey grim determination coupled with nobility of purpose, but it’s long since lost its ability to convey anything new about the character Ford embodies in movie after movie. A younger actor with a less well-recognized screen persona might have made the machinations of this story-line come to life, but with Ford at the helm of the action, it becomes a case of  “been there, seen that”. 

Veteran British director Richard Loncraine, (Wimbledon, much television) gets the pacing right here, but the story and characters are just too shopworn to deliver anything that’s genuinely new or especially appealing. Ford’s drawing power may still be sufficient to bankroll this kind of product, but if the quality of his last few appearances is any indication, he might want to consider following General McArthur’s career path and, like that old soldier, “just fade away”…. 


The verdict?  Suitable for a bit of late night escapism when it migrates to DVD, but not much more.  


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