Touch of Gray

Salt Lake City Weekly | February 7, 2006
In one of those moments when mortality sneaks up and smacks you upside the head, I realized: Indiana Jones now looks like my dad.

I make this statement with no disrespect for AARP-aged Americans in general, or for my father in particular. But between that creepy Dr. Seuss Super Bowl spot and Firewall, it hit painfully home that Harrison Ford—the defining cinematic hero of my generation—is no longer in, shall we say, his prime hero-ing years. The shock of gray hair, the creeping age spots, the descending jowls—it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine this guy wielding a bullwhip.

At 63 years old, Ford might seem out of place once again playing the action hero in Firewall, but his modern maturity actually adds a little something extra to this otherwise rote thriller. Ford plays Jack Stanfield, vice-president of electronic security for a Seattle bank. He’s got a terrific job, a lovely architect wife (Virginia Madsen) who also designed their kick-ass house, and two charming kids. In short, Jack’s got it all—which makes him a prime target for Cox (Paul Bettany) and his team of thieves. Cox has a plan to rip off Jack’s bank to the tune of $100 million, and kidnapping the family of the guy who knows all the passwords seems like an ideal way to accomplish it.

The family hostages provide a familiar set-up—Ford himself has even done it before in Air Force One—that depends almost entirely on tightly-wound filmmaking and an appropriately nasty villain. Bettany holds up his end with urbane menace, getting a little nastier than the bad guys are often allowed to be. But there’s some unnecessary over-plotting going on in Joe Forte’s script that blunts momentum. One sub-plot, involving a merger deal for Jack’s bank, exists primarily to explain one minor change in bank procedures (and to allow Robert Patrick to fume suspiciously at Jack before disappearing from the film).

There’s also a problem that has plagued cyber-themed thrillers for a decade: How to wring excitement from scenes of people frantically tapping at keyboards. Director Richard Loncraine does a decent job of building suspense, but he’s hamstrung by a story that involves plenty of what would be called “technobabble” back in Star Trek days. Remember when heists used to be visually interesting? Computers have made everything easier, including the work of screenwriters who used to have to design cinematically compelling break-ins.

If the film manages any urgency—aside from the always-unfair use of kids in peril—it’s thanks to Ford, and not in the way you might expect. While he’s always been a somewhat limited actor, determination has been one of his strengths. In Firewall, we get to see that grimly determined Ford, but playing a character with a body that can’t always do what his still-sharp mind wants it to do. Jack jumps a few feet onto a balcony, and flops over a patio chair; he sprawls awkwardly onto his back while trying to leap to the defense of his daughter. The reality of Ford’s advancing years makes Firewall feel like a slightly different chapter in his film history. He’s playing a computer geek whose best butt-kicking days have passed him by—and that subtext delivers more drama than the script can muster.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t ultimately get into a big brawl with Bettany, because Firewall always exists reliably in Movie World. That’s the place where cars move at an even pace on Seattle freeways during rush hour, or where a trapped character of course knows the secret ways around the place she herself designed (see also: Flightplan). Firewall sticks to its formula more reliably than KFC’s seven herbs and spices, never once making the leap to something genuinely thrilling. Yet it’s also slightly more interesting than it has any right to be, mostly because its star has changed gears—at least until Indiana Jones 4 finally shows up.


**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Starring Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen

Directed by Richard Loncraine.

Rated PG-13

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