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Ford drives 'Firewall' to the limit

Harrison Ford is 63.

At that age, Cary Grant had already been retired from movies for a couple of years.

But that's nothing. At that age, Gary Cooper had been dead for three years and Humphrey Bogart had been dead for six.

On the other hand, John Wayne was still throwing haymakers and shooting varmints to the age of 69 (by which time lung cancer had already cost him a lung.)

Anybody, then, expecting Ford -- whose career has thus far seemed equal parts Cooper, Bogart and Wayne -- to climb off the screen for good and ponder in private the mysteries of arthritis and the aging prostate is barking up the wrong movie star. And Richard Loncraine's "Firewall" proves it over and over.

It's a very good suspense thriller for which Ford is ideal casting -- still. He plays a family man and computer genius whose family (wife, 14-year old daughter, asthmatic 8-year old son) is kidnapped and continually threatened unless he cooperates in a scheme to steal $100 million from the Seattle bank he works for.

Ford's lean, haggard, craggy face is the focus of the whole movie, and I assure you there are very few instruments in American film that are better at registering confusion, terror, worry and, when the time is right, all the righteous ferocity of fatherhood itself as a beleaguered institution in an age when "paternalism" is an even dirtier word than "liberalism."

Nor is the 63-year-old star married to the 42-year old Virginia Madsen absurd fantasy overreach. In what is laughingly known as real life (a decidedly shaky concept in Hollywood), the real Harrison Ford is living with 41-year-old Calista Flockhart and, therefore, dealing daily with the moods and needs of her 5 year old. (Let's admit, straight off, that such things are a whole lot easier when you can afford a separate nanny for every single pre-teen kid in Santa Monica.)

The movie is taut, smart, brisk and exciting. I'll grant you that it has no originality whatsoever -- especially not in the career of Harrison Ford. We've already seen him -- just to take a handful of Ford movies -- search for his kidnapped wife in Polanski's "Frantic," protect the world and his family in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" and the air space of winged presidents everywhere in "Air Force One." We know, then, that bad guys transgress on his personal space at their extreme peril.

With his cool, flippant, slightly lunatic wise-guy concern, Bruce Willis does the beleaguered Dad bit well but with Ford doing it, you're beyond stereotype and into archetype. So what, then, if the movie is just a high-tech combo of "The Desperate Hours" and "Die Hard" with a little spritz of "Flightplan" and "Red Eye" thrown in to remind you we're living in the era of Bush II.

Virginia Madsen doesn't have much to do as his architect wife except take abuse and look soulful and understanding, as if the world were coming home with a bad report card. Nor does the great Alan Arkin do much as Ford's worried boss. Paul Bettany, on the other hand, is neatly sadistic and cruel as the frosty, degenerate Brit bad guy a la Alan Rickman in "Die Hard." (Semioticians take note: he's a few inches taller than Harrison Ford. In the universe of signs in Harrison Ford movies, that either denotes weakness or evil.)

All the fancy computer razzle-dazzle distracts from the stark simplicity of the plot but then the lean efficiency of this suspense machine is what makes it run so well.

But then director Richard Loncraine is a good deal smarter than the average up-from-MTV Hollywood thriller maker these days. Among Loncraine's other films is the brilliant, hallucinatory Sir Ian McKellen version of Shakespeare's "Richard III," one of the most convincing modern dress versions of the Bard ever put on screen (one of the very few, some might say).

Who needs originality with a good hot dog? You don't need it here, either.


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

Harrison Ford, Virginia Madsen, Paul Bettany and Alan Arkin in Richard Loncraine's thriller about a bank security officer forced to commit bank robbery after his family is kidnapped. Rated PG-13, opening Friday in area theaters.


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