Like Red Bull cocktails or Karl Rove, the high-tech thriller is a stubborn scourge that isn't going away anytime soon. Whether it's Sandra Bullock in The Net or Ryan Phillipe in Antitrust, the formula is always the same: Take your standard wronged-everyman thriller, add some blatantly false computer jargon that will sound authentic to 90 percent of the audience, and slap on an empty catchphrase for the title.
Now we get Harrison Ford as an information technology specialist for a bank in Firewall, a movie that's really no different than all the other "stay away from my family" thrillers that the actor's made since 1988's Frantic. Only this time around, the 63-year-old Ford looks way too old to be brandishing a pistol, running through fire and producing offspring with the 20-years-younger Virginia Madsen.
The movie opens with Ford's Jack Stanfield in his palatial Seattle home, eating breakfast with his family and tinkering with ordinary gadgets an electronic dog collar, a remote-control car that, of course, will be of MacGyver-like use to him later in the film. After putting in a day of routine systems analysis for the bank and spouting lines like "That would be resistant to false positives," Jack is kidnapped by Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), a sniveling British criminal mastermind whose henchmen are holding Jack's family hostage. Bill plans to use Jack to gain access to every account in the bank's computer system; unfortunately, there are snags in Bill's evil plan, not the least of which is Jack's wife Beth (Madsen) and her attempted escape with the kids and their beloved poodle.
Never mind the fact that tech gurus usually look more like The Simpsons' slovenly Comic Book Guy than an aging Han Solo. There are far more preposterous things in Firewall to mull over, such as how an iPod and a scanner can be used to copy thousands of account passwords. Like any big-budget thriller, the movie's script is admirably convoluted, and director Richard Loncraine keeps a fast pace all the way through to the thudding, ridiculous conclusion. But with the talent involved, you'd expect the movie to be something more than a random assortment of clichés and Chrysler product placements.
Any film with a big shot like Ford is bound to attract some stellar performers, and Firewall is no exception; but such veteran actors as Alan Arkin, Robert Patrick and Robert Forster mostly just stand around with nothing to do. It's especially disheartening to see last year's comeback-girl Madsen follow up her triumphant Sideways performance by playing a character whose sole purpose is to wince and whine as the bad guys beat her senseless. More bizarre but welcome nonetheless is Punch-Drunk Love's brilliant oddball Mary Lynn Rajskub in the thankless role of the put-upon secretary who helps out our hero when he has no place to turn. Former Detroiter Rajskub is the only one in Firewall who manages to take a routine part and turn it into something funny, off-kilter and real. If he bothered to pay attention, a senior citizen like Ford could learn a thing or two from Rajskub.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].