Sunday, February 12, 2006

REVIEW: Firewall

"Home invasion" movies are a subgenre of suspense unto themselves, one of those curious, rigidly-rulebound mutations branching off from it's mother genre they way "slashers" grew out of horror, "Die Hard but in a _____" grew out of action and "umitigated crap" grew out of romantic comedy.

The "modern" home invasion movie can be traced at least as far back as "Lady in A Cage" (and undoutedly even further,) but the two prime models for the theme as we know it today are 1967's "Wait Until Dark" and Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" in 1971. "Dark" featured an ultra-vulnerable (itty-bitty Audrey Hepburn... blind, even!) female lead set upon unknowingly by crooks, while "Dogs" had Dustin Hoffman as a thoroughly-pacifist cityboy forced to revert (or rise?) to raw caveman machismo during an assault on his home by brutish, uber-masculine thugs. Every home invasion yarn spun since essentially retells one or the other, thusly "Firewall" can be aptly described as a techy-take on "Straw Dogs," with Harrison Ford in the Hoffman role.

This is about more than just setup. "Straw Dogs" and it's progeny are all powerful and explicitly-masculine nightmares AND fantasies: The nightmare of having the sanctity of the home violated, the family imperiled, etc... but also the fantasy of rescuing said family from peril and restoring said sanctity to the home. The hero MUST be a loving family man, altogether decent but "robbed" by modern technological civilization of opportunities (or day-to-day reasons) to indulge his inner alpha-male. The bad guys MUST be slimier, more-animalistic than the hero to keep the "city versus the jungle" strain going, save for the leader who MUST be in some way similar to the hero so that the conflict can exist on two planes. Attractive wives/daughters MUST be leered at and in imminent threat of sexual-assault, so as the crystalize the territorial core of the conflict.

Here, Ford is head of security for a major bank, and Paul Bettany is the super-slick leader of a high-tech theivery gang who takes the family hostage. He needs Ford's character's help to siphon millions in "virtual money" out of the bank's database, or the family will die. Tick tick tick tick tick tick...

That's enough to make a servicable thriller out of, and "Firewall" manages this and only this. The most memorable home invasion stories have added elements of intrigue or plumb darker depths of subtext, as "Fight For Your Life!" where the captive family is black and the bad guys are violent racists or "Straw Dogs'" pitch-dark rape subplot. Bettany, certainly, has a great "oh, you BASTARD!" moment toward the middle that'll have every parent in the audience ready to beat his skull in themselves, but the rest of the film isn't really interested in attaining a unique, lasting status. It wants to be a functional techno-thriller, a decent "I still kick ass" star-vehicle for Ford destined for a comfy immortality as a basic cable mainstay ("movies for guys who like movies," as TBS used to call them) and it achieves this.

We know, going in, that most of the film will be marking time in between the initial kidnapping and the 3rd act wherein the bad guys painfully learn what we already know: It's a bad idea to pick a fight with Indiana Solo. Until then, it's fun-with-gadgets, as the story has it's fun coming up with fun ways to build suspense sequences out of webcams, cell-phones and iPods. One "MacGuyver"-ish device the hero rigs up in particular seems like it was a lot of fun to come up with, but also has the whiff of something that'll have tech-saavy viewers tearing their hair out.

There's a few more rules to this genre than mentioned above, like that trappings of everday home life such as, say, children's scattered toys MUST eventually be employed as anti-baddie tools, and that dogs MUST perform, directly or indirectly, key day-saving actions and, most importantly: No matter what the setting of the movie-proper, the final confrontation between would-be alpha males MUST take the form of a punishing slugfest to prove once and for all who's the real man. Whether "Firewall" adheres as close to these as it does to the others I'll let you find out on your own.

FINAL RATING: 6/10