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Firewall   D+

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Richard Loncraine
Writer: Joe Forte
Cast: Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Robert Patrick, Robert Forster, Alan Arkin.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's a basic concept in cinema studies that has a direct bearing on the new Harrison Ford thriller Firewall. It's called "suture," and it refers to the formula of first creating a void of suspense, and then filling it with a satisfying answer. It starts with basic shot/reverse-shot dynamics: we see a character looking at something offscreen and ask, "What's he looking at?" The next shot reveals an object, which formalistically connects it to his gaze and implicitly reveals what he's seeing. A question is posed and answered; need is created and fulfilled, thus guiding our perceptions and manipulating our emotional response -- hopefully in a pleasing and entertaining manner. Hollywood constructs entire narratives out of this basic building block, and they're so good at it that we often keep questioning even though we pretty much know every answer in advance. Will the girl get the guy? Will the hero escape the burning building? Will the wrong thing be set aright? And in the case of Firewall: Will Harrison Ford slip out of the bad guys' cunning scheme and pound the righteous piss out of them like we know he's going to?

Numerous Ford vehicles (no pun intended) rely completely upon this equation: the first half recounts the villains' evil plot -- snaring Ford, targeting his family for violence, and generally acting like rotten bastards -- long enough for the actor to build up that well-honed sense of justified rage, upon which time he is cut loose to deliver some Old Testament pain hammering unto them. When stripped away of its details, it's basically one single question, posed in the first hour and then answered in the second. Suture el grande.

The problem is that repetition of the formula has bred some serious contempt. Ford has gone back to that well one time too many, and now -- 13 years after Patriot Games first ushered in the notion for him -- there's very little point in rehashing it. Firewall has nothing new to add, despite boasting a clever villain in Paul Bettany, a noble wife in Virginia Madsen, and a plucky girl Friday in the delightfully batshit Mary Lynn Rajskub. Its themes are too threadbare, its suspense too derivative of a hopelessly overused gimmick. The plot -- in which Bettany's nefarious band of ne'er-do-wells kidnaps the wife and children of Ford's computer-security expert in order to blackmail him into helping them rob the bank where he works -- lacks the imagination to which it so clearly aspires, leaving nothing but shabby retreads in its place.

Director Richard Loncraine (who knocked one out of the park with 1995's Richard III, but has since struggled to find an equally compelling project) creates a by-the-book atmosphere of supposed feints and parries, in which Ford -- sent to his bank to do evil while his family waits with guns to their heads -- tests his captors' boundaries in a desperate attempt to break free. On a knee-jerk level, the plot functions adequately, but its efforts are sabotaged by the fact that the villains always pull back from inflicting the kind of harm of which they're clearly capable. Ford's gambits -- trying to warn his co-workers at the bank, conveying messages for help that won't be picked up by the omnipresent surveillance, etc. -- are met by finger wagging and a lot of don't-do-it-agains from Bettany... who is supposedly so ruthless that he'll kill small children without blinking. Why doesn't he play hardball earlier? Why not start lopping off the kids' fingers at the first sign of defiance? The discrepancy between his threats and his actual deeds creates a real credibility gap, sabotaging the film's efforts to make us fear for the family's safety.

Beneath this lingering issue, Loncraine toddles along with aggressive mediocrity, salvaging moments here and there in Rajskub's irresistibly prickly secretary and a few choice lines from Bettany. ("You're beginning to bore me," he sighs to an underling in that marvelously languid British way that says, "If you don't shut your yap, I'm going to staple your eyeballs to the back of your skull.") The film's Seattle setting is handsome, but as shopworn as the rest of the production, lending it a bland, generic feeling that DP Marco Pontecorvo never quite transcends.

For a time, Firewall is content with such basic disposability; it relishes its few assets and plays them out without providing any real reason to pay attention. But then comes the payback -- the point at which suture ensues and the deferred gratification finally arrives. It involves a large plot twist, the nature of which I will not divulge (it's a big twist, and the last 20 minutes or so really hinge on it). But please don't misconstrue that as a selling point: the details are quite ludicrous, and rapidly turn Firewall from a semi-watchable time killer into a bad joke. Ford's trademark righteousness hits its mark soon thereafter, but there's no goodwill left to support its weight, and the ensuing mayhem becomes a parody of itself: further evidence of how far the once-infallible actor has slipped. The movie simply can't hope to survive such a blow.

Not that it had much going for it anyway. As a routine thriller Firewall is barely functional, but as a waste of talent, it's positively amazing. No one here needs to suffer through a product of such uninspired design, and while the prospect of working with Ford must have been an enticement, the actor has long since lost the nose for quality that he clearly requires to thrive. His variation on suture has clearly run its course, and Firewall arrives far too late to earn him any further reprieve. Maybe next time, he can just leave the question unanswered; frankly, we'd all be better off.

Review published 02.10.2006.

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