CRIMES OF THE FUTURE : Richard Loncraine’s ‘Firewall’ [5/10]

"I don't gamble," rumbles risk-averse computer-security expert Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford) early on in Firewall, a clunkingly old-fashioned kidnap/hostage/family-in-peril/bank-heist thriller somewhat unconvincingly decked out with various high-tech bells and whistles. And of course that's also Ford himself talking: in many ways he's the last of the old-school Hollywood stars, defiantly happy to stand slap-bang of the (shallow) movie mainstream while his peers explore the more stimulating – but much less fiscally rewarding – waters of independent/foreign/edgy cinema.

Like a choosy, exceptionally well-heeled kind of hitch-hiker, Ford just waits until the next suitable vehicle comes along. Unfortunately for everyone, these do have a habit of turning out to be disappointingly rickety conveyances: after K-19 : The Widowmaker and Hollywood Homicide, Firewall has been Ford's third consecutive box-office flop in a row. Not that he or his bank-manager are likely to be experiencing many sleepless nights, with the long-mooted, much-delayed Indiana Jones IV reportedly about to enter pre-production. Like all of Ford's recent projects, Indy IV will have to address the issue of the leading man's advancing years – he's now well into his seventh decade, and (hair-dye job notwithstanding) looks every inch the Lion In Winter.

In Firewall, the doughy-craggy Ford/Stanfield is matched against a much younger, taller, slimmer, fitter adversary: Paul Bettany (who shares Ford's above-the-title billing) as the devious 'Mr Cox,' a softly-spoken, tea-drinking, vaguely camp Brit villain in the Rickman/Irons mould. Cox is very keen to get his manicured hands on the deposits secured in a certain Seattle bank; Stanfield's job is to prevent such unwelcome intrusions, by means of complex "firewall" programs. So Cox and his associates storm Stanfield's fancy lakeside pad (one which looks eerily like William Petersen's gaff from Fear), holding Stanfield's architect wife (Virginia Madsen) and young children hostage. Their ultimatum is simple: Stanfield must hack into the bank's systems, or the bad guys will – ahem – 'hack into' his family…

Perhaps as a concession to Ford's (relative) infirmity, Firewall's first half is more cerebral than action-packed: ageing blokes (Ford, Robert Forster, Alan Arkin, Robert Patrick) peer intently at computer screens, exchanging impenetrable techno-babble ("resistant to false positives," "wire transfer terminals" etc etc) as the Stanfield/Cox battle-of-wits escalates. When push comes to shove, however, Joe Forte's script gear-grindingly shifts into slam-bang mode, with Ford ("I just bet everything on Cox's greed!") having to precariously clamber through windows in the middle of a drenching downpour.

This silliness culminates with a protracted Ford/Bettany fist-fight in one of those deserted, semi-dilapidated country-cabins which so often pop up the climax of Hollywood movies, full of handy planks to break the combatants' falls. Along the way Forte doles out the twists, turns in such such desultory, conventional style that the results feel (appropriately/ironically) rather computer-generated. Among numerous groan-inducing moments is the revelaton that Stanfield's youngest child turns out to suffer from a nut allergy – which makes only a slight change from the usual asthma/diabetes schtick – see Panic Room, Signs etc.

At some earlier stage in Forte's screenplay, it seems that Firewall (back when it was still called The Wrong Element) might have had an intriguingly economic/political edge: Cox's scheme (involving skimming $10,000 from the bank's 10,000 richest clients) is relatively egalitarian and low-impact; he taunts Stanfield that the latter is "chasing the American dream"; Stanfield's kids play Monopoly to pass the time; the Desperate Hours-ish home-invasion by the robbers is on one level a classic 'punishment of luxury' scenario in which the boat-owningly well-heeled clan are rudely shaken out of their complacency – and Jack is compelled to visit the 'other side of the tracks' when he turns to tenement-dwelling Janet for help.

But while he's an affluent cog in the capitalist system, Jack isn't anything like, say, Michael Douglas's sneeringly insulated Van Orton from The Game: indeed, early on Forte has him (rather implausibly) standing up for the bank's "little man" clients – under the grandfatherly stewardship of Arkin, the institution is (relatively) benign, altruistic and small-scale, especially in comparison with the ruthless megacorp (represented by a typically cold-eyed Robert Patrick) which may be about to gobble it up.

Though moderately watchable in the lukewarm-competent hands of director Loncraine (who worked with Bettany on Wimbledon), there's very little here to surprise, energise or engage the audience, with composer Alexandre Desplat happy to recycle the kind of incessant, over-emphatic, horns-n-strings movie music we've heard a thousand times before – including some ill-advised Bernard Herrmanish/Hitchcockian moments.

Amid the prevailing blandness, it falls to the ever-reliable Mary-Lynn Rajskub (from 24, GalaxyQuest and Punch-Drunk Love) to puncture the tedium with her lively turn as Stanfield's put-upon secretary Janet. Initially deployed as ditzy comic relief (the scene in which Cox orders her Donald-Trumpish sacking is, oddly, perhaps the most effective in the whole picture) Janet really comes into her own in the second half when she helps out her desperate ex-boss. This involves an deliciously out-of-left-field moment when the plot requires her to locate her nerdish on-off boyfriend: he turns out, to her surprise and ours, to be playing guitar at a raucous Christian rock concert. It's a rare moment of dopey humour in a project which otherwise shares much of Ford's tamped-down, furrowed-browed seriousness.

Rajskub certainly fares much better than the hapless Madsen – 'enjoying' what might be called her 'wine dividend' payday after returning to the limelight with Sideways, while Carly Schroeder (so striking in Mean Creek) has even less to as the Stanfield's pubescent, blonde daughter, apart from being menaced by Cox's wisecracking heavies. This crew turns out to be a rum bunch, featuring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the unbearably smug hunk Liam – who, with his impeccably-coiffed fringe and haughty demeanour, would appear more at home on the pages of L'uomo Vogue rather than Soldier of Fortune (it's telling that, when he's attacked by Jack, the craggy oldster aims at Liam's model-handsome, unlined face).

One major problem of Firewall is that, for all Cox's silky menace, Jack's family never really seem in particularly dire peril. When, for example, we see them playing early on with their cute dog Rusty we expect that the pet will have to "get it" in order to bring home the urgency of their situation. Instead, the pooch remains strangely unbothered by the whole experience, staying tail-waggingly alive throughout in order to provide an especially implausible plot-pivot via his 'Pet-Nav 3000' collar. It's all rather corny, laborious, predictable stuff, right up to the howlingly cliched last shot: a vertiginous pull-back into the sky just as the comforting blue lights of the police (belatedly) appear over the dusty horizon.

Neil Young

7th April, 2006

: [5/10] : USA (USA/Aus) 2006 : Richard LONCRAINE : 105 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Odeon cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 24th March 2006 – press show