Hackers and Hacks

Firewall is a high-tech catastrophe.

Harrison Ford in a scene from Firewall

Firewall (Warner Bros.) is one of those all-purpose, vaguely techy thrillers that roll out of Hollywood studios like colored spheres from a gumball machine, especially in the gloomy, post-Oscar-nomination days. Harrison Ford, in his standard-issue Henry Fonda-style role as aggrieved Everyman, plays Jack Stanfield, a computer security expert at a Seattle bank who lives in a fantabulous waterfront house designed by his architect wife, Beth (Virginia Madsen). Their enviable life includes two children, 14-year-old Sarah (Carly Schroeder) and 8-year-old Andrew (Jimmy Bennett). But as the film opens, we see every moment of the Stanfield’s perfect life being observed by hidden cameras, tapped phones, and online surveillance.

Who could wield such ominous, all-seeing power—the National Security Agency under new provisions of FISA? No, it’s only Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), a ruthless British thief with an arsenal of cool toys and a team of interchangeable thugs at his disposal. Posing as a rich businessman who wants to poach Jack away from his job, Cox soon manages to infiltrate the Stanfield home, where he takes the whole family hostage until Jack agrees to use his security know-how to steal $100 million from his own bank.

In order to appeal to the largest possible audience (and therefore, to no one in particular), Firewall has been relieved of even the remotest political or social subtext. This isn’t a reflection on the disappearance of privacy or the role of technology in the modern age. It’s just a hectic, pasty amalgam of every action thriller of the past 20 years, in which an embattled paterfamilias (think Michael Douglas) matches wits, weapons, and, finally, fists with a sneering Eurovillain (think Alan Rickman). The idea of being kidnapped in your own home has some promise (it was played for laughs, with great brio, in the 1994 comedy The Ref), but the Stanfields are such wholesome bores, and their kidnappers such indistinguishable ciphers, that the suspense is reduced to its lowest common denominator: Oh no, is the mean guy going to hurt that nice lady? Even the potentially dangerous combination of foxy teenage daughter and red-blooded young hoods is never tapped for its creep potential.

One of the many disappointments of Firewall is how it squanders its own cast. Good character actors, including Robert Forster and Alan Arkin, are wasted—literally, in some cases, as the body count piles up. When the toothsome Virginia Madsen made a comeback in 2004’s Sideways, it was exciting to ponder what role she might take on next. But if all she’s going to do with her newfound bankability is become this decade’s Anne Archer, faithfully awaiting the safe return of her 20-years-older on-screen spouse, what is the point?

American movies have been trying to figure out for a while now what to do with Paul Bettany. His bloodless good looks (his hair, skin, and eyes all seem to be the same sinister shade of beigey yellow) strand him somewhere between romantic lead and supervillain, and he has a fatally precise diction that makes the weakest dialogue sound somehow meaningful. But Bettany’s Bill Cox, as written, makes no sense. He’s so ruthless he casually orders a subordinate to break an 8-year-old’s kneecap, yet he’s softhearted enough to bring Rusty, the family dog, along on what’s meant to be the family’s final ride.

As for Harrison Ford, he seems, at 63, beyond analysis. His early persona, a quizzical outsider who only got going when the going got tough (both Han Solo and Indiana Jones were endearingly lazy), has given way to his lion-in-winter on-screen self, which might be described as a shambling but noble geezer. It’s particularly absurd to imagine such a type mastering the intricacies of ultra-high-tech security systems. Ford is definitely hacking his way through something in Firewall, but it’s not a computer.