System crash 

Ford feels miscast in techno-savvy Firewall

Harrison Ford's Firewall contains a smidgen of social value, though its attempts at generating suspense won't erase any memories of Alfred Hitchcock. The techno-thriller stars Ford as Jack Stanfield, a bank security expert coerced into helping a crew of brutal, book-smart robbers.

Firewall belongs to the class of predictable, forgettable action flicks that keep audiences up to date in how computer or communications breakthroughs can be used against us. Firewall is destined for the fuzzy recall depot alongside films like Enemy of the State with Will Smith or Antitrust, with Tim Robbins as the evil Bill Gates lookalike. Such movies can beat the nightly news at teaching us, say, that satellites can read our car license plates from orbit. You can imagine screenwriters poring over the Sharper Image catalog for gadgets that can have sinister applications -- and if they're doing it, real-life cyber-swindlers are probably following suit.

Early in Firewall, Stanfield gets accosted by a collections agent over his computer gambling debts. Of course, a staunch family man like Stanfield would never stoop so low as to gamble online, so he deduces that he's been stung by an identity thief who fished his personal data from the trash. It's a red herring in the movie, but still provides the audience a useful factoid of cautionary information.

Things become less commonplace when pale, slick Brit Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) takes hostage Stanfield's bourgeois family, including his wife, Beth (Sideways' Virginia Madsen). Bill and his band of brawny goons and sensitive hackers send Jack back to the bank to implement a complicated electronic heist. The bad guys keep Jack heavily bugged so they can see and hear his actions, and Firewall's cleverest moments have the hero trying to get help without being detected.

Joe Forte's script proves weirdly thin and drawn-out: The hostage situation takes place over several nights, and the terrorized parents' attempts to escape with their children seem irresponsibly reckless. The most eerie moment finds Cox using the couple's son's peanut allergy against him, although you can't help but notice that Bettany's insincere attempt to ingratiate himself to the boy shows more warmth than Ford ever does.

Ford proves thoroughly miscast in a role that requires such showy technical know-how. When he casually recites computer techno-speak, you can't help but wonder if he has the first idea of what he's saying, or just learned his lines phonetically. He might as well be bragging that "the Millennium Falcon can do the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs." Ford achieved stardom thanks to both his matinee-idol earnestness and moments of deadpan comic timing. In recent years, he's effective only with the humorless, angry-pointing kind of acting, like when he snarled, "Get off my plane!" in Air Force One. I kept waiting for him to tell Bettany, "Get off my server!" when he turns the thieves' scientific reliance against them.

The first time we see the Stanfield family, they can barely hear each other over their "innocent" MP3s and laptops and remote-controlled toys. Director Richard Loncraine shows some interest in dramatizing the insidious implications of communications technology and financial networks. With domestic surveillance a huge issue in contemporary headlines, it doesn't hurt to have a Hollywood film dramatize how easily and completely personal privacy can be compromised today.

But Loncraine can't change Firewall from an essentially dumb action flick that culminates with standard-issue fight scenes and a requisite car crash followed by a spectacular explosion. After all, a film titled Firewall just has to have a literal firewall in it somewhere, however briefly or improbably.



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