'Firewall' isn't built Ford tough

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

With his wary eyes and ready grimace, Harrison Ford always looks as if he's under siege, which ought to make him the perfect actor for the cyberthriller, "Firewall."

He plays Jack Stanfield, a computer security specialist for a Seattle-based bank who becomes the target of a team of mercenaries headed up Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), whose English accent, as a genre convention, certifies his villainy.

Ford has been through these paces many times before, and it shows. From "Air Force One" to "What Lies Beneath," he's become a haggard exemplar of aging-man heroics. In "Firewall," he is once again called upon to go mano a mano with the bad guys, although, truth be told, he's getting a bit long in the tooth for such sport.

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The "new" twist here is that Cox and his crew are bank robbers for the 21st century: Instead of loading up a getaway car with cash, they plug into the bank's computer network, where most of the moola exists as virtual money. Jack is forced to breach his own security system and transfer the funds into Cox's offshore account.

All this may be technologically feasible, but it doesn't make for a terribly exciting scenario. A fair amount of time is taken up with heated exhortations about digital encryptions and parabolic microphones. Someone needed to tell these filmmakers that pushing a button is inherently less dramatic than pulling a trigger.

Director Richard Loncraine must understand this because whenever he's not showcasing cyberspace he's drawing on the hoariest thriller clichés. Jack's beautiful lakefront home has been infiltrated by the bad guys, which means that we can look forward to the obligatory scene where Jack's son, who is deathly allergic to nuts, is fed a nutty candy bar by Cox. He's just showing who's boss. In another scene, the family's yappy dog gets in harm's way.

Loncraine is uncharacteristically tasteful for this kind of project, which might be a liability here. The bad guys are not really all that bad - one of them, the computer whiz, naturally, seems downright nice. Even Cox is relatively sane. That bit with the candy bar is about as awful as it gets, and we're never in any doubt that the boy will survive.

The only question I have is, Will Harrison Ford survive yet another mediocre movie? Back in the '80s, with films like "Witness," "Mosquito Coast," and "Frantic," he still seemed interested in taking on projects that promised more than a payday. Since he owns a piece of some of the most successful films ever made - the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" franchises - one would think he would be more open to risk.

Since he's not really capable of being a credible action star anymore - despite talk of yet another "Indiana Jones" movie - wouldn't it make sense at this point to settle into roles with some psychological depth? In "Firewall," it's downright depressing watching him put up his dukes in the climactic punch-out while his family cringes in fear. Any actor could fill this bill. Or are we supposed to be especially scared because it is Ford, and not some youthful leading man, who is being pummeled?

And while we're on the subject of depressing, it's disconcerting to see Virginia Madsen, who was so marvelous in her 2004 comeback role in "Sideways" reduced to playing the terrified wife here. She exudes uncommon intelligence even in these straitened circumstances, but can't Hollywood think of anything better to do with this actress than reward her with a cookie-cutter role?

Since the world is becoming ever more cyber, it's inevitable that more and more thrillers will be plugging into online skullduggery for their story lines. Primal fears come in all shapes and sizes, and there's no good reason why cyberthrillers should be any less creepy than the plain old- fashioned kind. But filmmakers who want to make new-style scare-fests should not be thinking old style. Grade: C-

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence.

Sex/Nudity: 2 instances of innuendo. Violence: 13 scenes. Profanity: 9 strong expressions, 15 milder. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 3 instances of drinking.

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