There is now practically a subgenre of films in which the protagonist’s family is kidnapped and the bad guys use that leverage to get him or her to perform some misdeed. Nick of Time, Hostage, and Red Eye all fit the bill. Firewall borrows not so much from these as it does from a television version of this scenario: The first season of 24. In addition to the premise, it borrows the technology (video and audio surveillance of our hero), a current cast member as the lead’s assistant (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and even the main character’s first name. Sadly, in gathering all these elements, Firewall fails to learn any of the lessons of the show it pilfers from.
Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford) is the prosperous head of security at a Seattle bank. His wife, Beth, (an utterly wasted Virginia Madsen) is a successful architect who designed their gorgeous home. They have two lovely stereotypical kids and a dog, and in our first five minutes with them just about every major plot point of the film is telegraphed in 28-point blinking bold script.
Enter new client Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), who, it turns out, has delayed Jack from getting home just so his cohorts can go all home invasion on Jack’s family. Cox demands that Jack help him rob the bank electronically, sending him back to work the next day fitted with the aforementioned surveillance gear.
Needless to say, things don’t go quite as well as the robbers expected, Jack has a few ideas of his own about who’s stealing what, and we have ourselves a movie.
What we don’t have is an original plot, interesting characters, or compelling dialogue. A few sparks of ingenuity (MacGyver-esque use of a fax machine and an iPod) or style (Massive Attack over the opening credits, with hidden camera footage of the family) help pass the time, but little seems unexpected or engaging.
Madsen seems particularly underused, given little to do but tell her kids to pretend they’re somewhere else instead of trying to figure out how to get the hell out of the house she designed. Ford puts on his trademark furrowed brow of righteous indignation until you’re ready for him to yell, “Get off my server!” but the most impressive bit of acting he does is to convincingly speak techno-babble. Bettany does his best Evil British Guy, but fails to convey menace.
In fact, for techno-thriller villains, the bad guys fail to convince us for a second that they’re either dangerous or technically proficient. They storm the house with bluster, setting up cameras and wearing gloves obsessively, but then drink from the family’s coffee mugs which, as anyone who’s seen a single episode of CSI can venture, might as well be handing the feds their DNA on a silver platter. They fall into standard templates, right down to the nerdy tech guy who falls for Beth. Inasmuch as they spend most of their time eating and ignoring the security cameras they’ve so painstakingly set up, they come off more as inept security guards than state-of-the-art cyberthugs.
Shows like 24 work because we buy into the main character’s relationship with his family, we believe in the threat against that family, and we know the hero is torn about doing something so evil to save them. Firewall gives us a main character whose relationship to his family is so generic as to be negligible, a threat so mild that the bad guy is crueler to his henchmen than to his victims, and a crime so petty-yet-lucrative that we wish we’d thought of it ourselves. The only thing that would be less fun is actually waiting in line at a bank.
Which is worst: The itching, the burning, or the movie?