A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 120 mins.
Jack Stanfield: Harrison Ford / Beth Stanfield: Virginia Madsen
/ Bill Cox: Paul Bettany / Janet Stone: Mary Lynn Rajskub / Gary Mitchell: Robert Patrick
/ Harry Romano: Robert Forster / Arlin Forester: Alan Arkin / Sarah Stanfield: Carly Schroeder
/ Andy Stanfield: Jimmy Bennett
A long time ago in a cineplex very, very nearby Harrison Ford was the undisputed king of the box office. He was easily the most successful star of the 1980’s if box office receipts mean anything. Yet, beyond the financial success of his early films, they also managed to be great entertainments.
I grew up idolizing Ford in some of the cinema’s best escapist films. If I need to remind you, he was in George Lucas’s original STAR WARS trilogy and also headlined as the lead in the INDIANA JONES trilogy. The first film in that series – 1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – was the best pure action/adventure of the post-modern era of filmmaking. Yes, Ford achieved what few actors can brag about – he was in films that not only made money, but were also kind of aesthetically magnificent and grand at the same time.
Yet, Ford of old is most certainly not the Ford of now. I guess I find it particularly difficult to have seen him flounder around in far too many mediocre films over the last 10 years. His last truly great film was – arguably – the 1993 Oscar nominated thriller THE FUGITIVE and since then his resume reveals itself void of anything actually inspiring. Films like 1994’s Jack Ryan feature CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER and 1997’s THE DEVIL’S OWN were passably watchable films. Other forays into decidedly darker territory, like Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 Hitchcockian tale WHAT LIES BENEATH, were mixed offerings. He’s also been in some truly awful films, like the abortive romantic comedy SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS. Even other films revealed Ford just playing through the motions, like 1999’s RANDOM HEARTS. Perhaps his most peculiar film was K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER, which had him inexcusably and inappropriately cast as a Russian. Huh? Ford has often been compared to greats like Gary Cooper. Thankfully, Mr. Cooper had the keen foresight to never play a Russian, to the best of my knowledge.
In short, Ford’s career desperately needs a bit of a reboot, and the new computer thriller FIREWALL mostly facilitates this need. The film is not a pristine return to form for the 63-year old actor, but it most assuredly is a decent return to form. It’s easily the actor’s best film since 1995’s SABRINA and his best pure action thriller since 1997’s AIR FORCE ONE. Anyone who had more lofty aspirations of the latter mentioned film were seriously deluding themselves. It was an unapologetic, tense, and slickly made suspense film, very much like FIREWALL.
Can a film be both simultaneously ingenious and insipidly dumb? I think so, and FIREWALL definitely has an ingenious setup with a definitively dumb payoff. The film does a thorough and confident job and setting up its premise and is far more well-crafted than most typical February thrillers, which more or less are abandoned by their respective studios during this time to die a slow cinematic death due to their inherent mediocrity. In short, what FIREWALL does it does well: it gives us a tough, yet vulnerable hero, an icy cold and despicable bad guy with a dastardly plot, and it populates them in a narrative that – most of the time – engages and thrills. More than anything, FIREWALL is a pleasurable and harmless diversion.
Yet, the film’s clever and nifty setup builds to such a crescendo that it never fully reaches a satisfactory payoff, and it especially has one particular plot revelation that had me bowling over with incredulity. FIREWALL feels authentic about computers and safety parameters, and the characters themselves speak and conduct themselves with the prerequisite hacker lingo and PC tech-talk that gives verisimilitude to the film. I am not – by any stretch of the word – an expert when it comes to computers. I am almost sure that my more computer literate friends will be able to punch enough holes in the plot of FIREWALL to make it look like Swish cheese.
For example, I would like to believe that Harrison Ford could – in fact – use an iPod in the manner he does in the film, despite the fact that I am pretty sure that the storage capacity of that neat electronic toy would not suffice to hold the databases of several major banks. I would also like to believe that Ford could pull a MacGyver and cannibalize the iPod and make it work with a network of computers, although I doubt that it would work quite so effortlessly in real life. I also would like to believe that a 63-year old systems manager of a bank would be able to mop the floor with an economic terrorist that is young enough to be his grandson, although I doubt that he would be equally to the task in real life. And finally, I would have really, really liked to believe that there would have been a need for the kidnappers to take the family dog along for a ride with the family they kidnapped that did not lead a crucial plot development, but…c’mon…who’s kidding who here?
And you know, one could grow dizzy by looking at the huge degrees of implausibility in a plot like this, but is that what these films exist for? I know many armchair intellectuals that would have a field day with FIREWALL, but while they spent their time shaking their head at the film, I spent the film enjoying its preposterous ride. Does a thriller have to be utterly believably for my buy-in? Yes and no. I think that if the film establishes itself – from the very get-go – as bathing in a sea of implausibility, then of course I can’t buy into it. Yet, in FIREWALL’s case, it does a very good job of involving the audience with its premise and holds on to us for so long that by the time the film starts wearing out its welcome, I felt that I still left the theatre engrossed and fulfilled. Sure, I could spend days banging my head upside the wall wondering why the kidnappers decided to take the family dog with the victims…but…it does not ultimately matter.
Despite some of the film’s silliness, it does offer us fairly well grounded and believable protagonists and antagonists. Ford plays Jack Stanfield, who is an incredibly bright and resourceful head of security for his bank that is about to merge with a larger, more global conglomerate. Jack is all business and takes great pride in his job, so much so that he does not take kindly to the fact that his new boss (Robert Patrick) does not share his same view of security. Outside of work, Jack leads a typical family life with a loving wife (played by Virginia Madsen) and two caring children (Carly Schroeder and Jimmy Bennett).
But wait, just when you thought Jack’s life of normalcy would continue, Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) enters. As we are introduced to him he is a businessman who has a meeting with Jack and then, within minutes after exchanging pleasantries, drinks, and business ideas with him, he jumps into his car, points a gun to his head, and demands that he helps him with a grand scheme or his family will die. His plan is the ingenious part of FIREWALL – he wants Jack to assist him with the electronic robbery of $100 million from the bank he works at. To make matters even worse, Cox is such an unscrupulous fiend that – when his plan near completion – he attempts to frame Jack for the robbery and a series of other crimes as well. As Jack’s situation begins to grown more and more dire, he soon realizes that he’ll need many things to ensure his family’s survival, like the help of his trusted secretary (Mary Lynn Rajskub). Oh, he also uses other things, like a cell phone, a laptop, and GPS satellite, a rather sharp pitchfork, and his trusted dog Rusty, of course. Hmmmm…why did those kidnappers decide to take the dog in the…ahhh…never mind.
I guess that if you go into FIREWALL expecting a smart, intricate techno-thriller then you may be disappointed. For the rest of us expecting more of a pastiche of other generic thrillers that is nevertheless made with competence and acted with thoughtfulness, then FIREWALL should aim to please. Sure, the film not only sprains credibility, but overtly breaks it from time to time, but there is no denying its strength at being well paced, taut, and gripping. This is not one of those pulse-pounding thrillers where sinister threats jump out of nowhere to illicit cheap shock reactions from us, nor does it ever want to be. This film has modest goals. We are interested in its premise, root for the good guy, hate the bad guy, and when good guy beats bad guy, we feel the film leave our minds as the curtains are raised. The film is not airtight in terms of story, but the sums of a large number of its parts are done well and well enough to gratify audience members.
Perhaps the film succeeds over some of its improbability by the conviction and strength of the performers in it. Virginia Madsen makes a credible victim in her role as the wife, and Paul Bettany is deliciously cool, calculated, and emotionally detached as the villain (again, for some odd reason, British actors always made the best bad guys). And then there is Ford, who again is able to command our empathy for his cause while effortlessly forging in his character an everyman earthiness and susceptibility. Even way, way back in his Indiana Jones days I liked how Ford does not play up his action heroes as larger than life saviours. His characters bleed when they get punched and kicked, feel winded after a brawl or fight, and feel utterly hopeless and tightly wound up when things don't go their way. Like the true Ford of old, he gives Jack Stanton a great layer of authenticity that makes him plausible and believable, even when he is doing things with iPods that I am not sure would work.
FIREWALL represents a solid Harrison Ford action-thriller vehicle that many of us thought he had failed to deliver us in the last decade. The film is a relative assemble line of clichés and conventions of other past, better films in the genre, not to mention that there are enough plot loop holes to swing a stick at. Nevertheless, FIREWALL is a simple and unassumingly appealing thrill ride that showcases yet another performance by Ford that is quietly commanding and understated for its charm, charisma, and likeability. His sense of vulnerability gives FIREWALL a believable edge, even during its more outrageously inane moments. I mean, how many other actors can be convincing and embody plausible authority while uttering such monosyllabic lines like, “I’m gonna find my dog”? I mean, you sure buy into him, even with purposefully throwaway lines like that.
But...I am still plagued with the reasons as to why the kidnappers took that damn dog with them? Ah.....Who cares?