Firewall: Richard Loncraine’s Techno Thriller Starring Harrison Ford

The challenge of making a modernist techno thriller is only partially met in Richard Loncraine’s “Firewall,” which begins well but then escalates to a conventional, by-the-book suspenser.

Despite the new computer technology that features prominently in the plot, the central narrative is very much in the tradition of thrillers about an American family under siege and in peril.

As such, the text, most of which is set within an upscale house (more like a fortress) recalls such old staples as the Frederic March-Humphrey Bogart 1955 thriller, “The Desperate Hours,” which was remade by Michael Cimino with Anthony Hopkins and Mickey Rourke. In some of its basic situations, “Firewall” also resembles the 1962 thriller “Cape Fear” and Scorsese’s 1991 remake of that picture.

In all of these films, a white suburban household is invaded by a creepy outsider (often an escaped or released convict) whose presence threatens the clan’s stability and harmony. Most such dramas unfold as two-handlers, cat-and-mouse conflicts between the family’s patriarchal head (here Harrison Ford) and the outsider-invader (Paul Bettany).

In this generic variant, Ford plays Jack Stanfield, a computer security specialist who works for the Seattle-based Landrock Pacific Bank. A trusted top-ranking exec, Jack has built his reputation on designing the industry’s most effective anti-theft computer system, one that protects the bank’s financial holdings from the constant threat of increasingly sophisticated Internet hackers with a complex network of tracers, access codes, and firewalls.

Jack’s position affords a comfortable lifestyle for him, his architect wife Beth (Virginia Madsen, in her first role after “Sideways”) and their two young children. Their high standard of living is reflected in a beautiful home in an oceanfront community outside Seattle (the film was shot in Canada).

Nonetheless, there’s vulnerability in Jack’s system that he has not accounted for: Himself. It’s a vulnerability that Bill Cox (Bettany), a ruthless and resourceful thief is poised to exploit. Cox has been studying Jack and his family for almost a year, monitoring their online activity, listening to their calls, and learning their daily routines with an arsenal of digital video recorders and parabolic microphones that tap into the most personal aspects of their lives.

Simultaneously, Jack’s movements come under increasing scrutiny by Accuwest exec and potential rival, Gary Mitchell (Robert Patrick, Joaquin Phoenix’s father in “Walk the Line”), with whom he has already locked horns over security procedures. Anxious that all goes smoothly, Lanrock CEO, Arlin Forrester (Alan Arkin) presses Jack to cooperate with the new management and make himself–“and his methods–available for questions.

Seeking to cut Jack off from anyone who might offer him help, Cox forces Jack to fire his trusted assistant Janet (Mary Rajskub). With Janet gone, and Mitchell constantly trying to trip him up, Jack still has one ally at work, his longtime friend and colleague Harry. It’s Harry who officially ushers Cox into Jack’s life by introducing him (in one of his many guises), this time a congenial entrepreneur looking to poach the security expert to head up a new consulting firm.

Complicating matters, the Landrock Pacific Bank is in the process of being acquired by the multinational Accuwest, with vital equipment that has been modified off-site, which makes Cox’s original scheme no longer possible. It therefore becomes necessary for Cox to cobble together an alternate way to get into the well-engineered security system.

Having meticulously laid the groundwork for nearly a year, Cox attacks in two ways. First, dramatically, invading a home and kidnapping Beth mom and her children, and then electronically, with fraudulent gambling debts racked up in Jack’s name, designed to ruin his reputation and portray him as the real bank robber long after Cox slips quietly away.

Cox contrives to take advantage of the merger of the bank (where Jack has worked for 20 years) with a larger bank and the likelihood that Jack might be eventually forced out, which creates a perfect motive for his being a thief. No one else would have the means, opportunity, and such a strong motive. Even if Jack tells the truth about what really happened, who would believe him

As Jack struggles to carry out Cox’s instructions without getting caught, he searches for a way to manipulate the system in his favor, anything that might give him an edge over his captor and something to bargain with for the release of his family. However, he knows that if Cox detects a trap, it could only make matters worse.

The creepy idea that an evil person could attach himself to an innocent family and worm his way into their lives is not new. What is new is the setting and details. The bulk of a bank’s assets today are likely to exist not in concrete-reinforced vaults, but in cyberspace. The industry has changed radically, and the amount of cash in a bank (not more than one percent) is insignificant compared to what’s in the computers. Thus, most of the assets are in computers, and if it’s a bank holding billions of dollars, the stakes are higher, turning those computers into primary targets for hackers.

Reflecting the zeitgeist, “Firewall” poses some timely and disturbing questions about the changing notions s of privacy and security in the wake of 9/11. In its good moments, “Firewall” touches a chord in challenging the validity of our wishful thinking that our computers, which increasingly serve as our main mode of communication, are safe and secure.

With the various ways surveillance can infringe upon the intimate details of everyday life with equipment readily available on the Internet, the illusion of privacy wears thin. And while most of us have not encountered such extreme intrusion as Jack, we may have experienced identity-theft and cloning via the Internet.

Motivated by his obsessive goal, Cox believes he has the expertise and skills to break into the system. As the story progresses, and Cox’s real motives become clearer, Jack begins to wonder just how much his friend Harry is involved with the monstrous criminal, how much he knows, and what games he may be playing. It doesn’t help that Cox sends Harry away for the weekend.

While there’s too much talk for “Firewall” to be truly exciting, the movie contains enough explosive moments, dramatic fights and action sequences to deliver the basic generic goods. Throughout, though, the focus is on the story of an “Everyman” who rises to an intimidating challenge where the game plan changes minute by minute, and who fights back with everything he has.

Plausibility aside, the idea that someone is exceptionally interested in Jack’s habits and schedules, his relationships and concerns, is potentially scary and could have yielded a much better thriller. Even so, suggesting a new direction for American thrillers, “Firewall” makes classic Hollywood stories of bank robberies old-fashioned, if not obsolete. The film’s world is utterly electronic, with vast amounts of money controlled by keyboards and codes.

Another point of departure is that for better or for worse “Firewall” tries to maintain the purity of the thriller generic conventions. Loncraine directs the movie as a thriller, rather than actioner or thriller-actioner, as has become the norm over the past two decades. With the exception of the obligatory chases and mano-a-mano fights at the end, most of the scenes are dialogue-driven, which may be the film’s main problem since the dialogue is routine and the situations familiar.

Well cast, Ford plays Jack Stanfield not a routine tough-guy but as a vulnerable and emotional man, highly aware of the risk he’s putting his family through. There’s extra anxiety, because even when Jack is trying to cooperate, the job doesn’t go smoothly.

Bettany, who had made a strong impression in “A Beautiful Mind,” proves that he is a visceral, instinctive actor. In a small and underdeveloped role, Madesn is effective as Jack’s wife and full partner, a woman who for a change has a career of her own; she’s an architect who designed their house (a point which is used later in the plot).

For the record: The opening sequence, showing the Stanfield family under surveillance, is unsettling but not nearly as disturbing as a similar sequence that begins Michael Haneke’s “Cache” (“Hidden”), a far better thriller (one with strong political overtones) about a French family under constant surveillance.