“Yes, as through this world I've wandered I've seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen ...”
-- Woody Guthrie, Pretty Boy Floyd
But fountain pens are passe; nowadays, it's all about cracking the VPN and breaking the WEP key. And Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford) knows that, because that what he's paid to worry about. Jack has it all – great kids, great relationship with his wife, a gorgeous house full of high-tech toys and a job he's great at, directing computer security for a medium-sized bank group, stopping hackers and script kiddies and fraudulent transfers. But Jack has failed to think about the weakest link in the bank's security … himself. Led by the manicured, coolly methodical Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), a plan is set in motion to steal one hundred million dollars from Jack's bank. The plan has a good chance of succeeding -- especially since the crooks are using Jack as their inside man, and his wife (Virginia Madsen) and children held at gunpoint if he should get any clever ideas or develop a lamentable taste for heroics. …
This is the kind of role Ford can play in his sleep, and fortunately for Firewall, he doesn't. Director Richard Loncraine (Wimbledon, Richard the III) has turned Joe Forte's script into the film equivalent of a mid-range page turner – something you'd enjoy during a long plane flight (especially if you're in business class) but might not feel especially tempted to remove from the seat-back pocket after you've finished it and you're wrestling your carry-on from the overhead bin. The fact of the matter is that what makes Firewall as good as it is isn't Loncraine's direction, or even Forte's script, or Ford's star power in service of another of the reluctant-man-of-action roles he's turned into his meal ticket. Firewall is a great example of how casting – the simple-but-complex question of who surrounds your star – can raise a film up from where a lesser treatment of the script might have left it. Take, for example, Bettany's bad guy. Bettany's not a bruising presence; he's too whipcord-thin; you look at him and pretty much know you could take him in a fight. But what Bettany's lean-and-hungry look does project is intelligence. Very early on, his measured and methodical tones make it clear that he's precisely the kind of bad guy where you don't throw a punch at him – not because he could out-fight you, but because he's already out-thought you.
The remainder of the cast is equally well-thought out, from Madsen's warm and well-executed work as Jack's wife and partner: She's funny, supportive and sexy when things are great, believably scared as Bettany comes to call, and displays courage under fire when Jack gets around to turning the tables. But the casting goes deeper still: Robert Forster is bluff and hearty as the ex-cop who works with Jack – the brawn to his brains – and makes a nicely filled-out impression with a few lines. Mary Lynn Rajskub plays what could have been a thankless role as Jack's assistant, but her left-of-center delivery turns clichés into nice, human, little scenes. Even Alan Arkin and Robert Patrick's few moments on screen as, respectively, the bank's CEO and the manager of the larger bank about to purchase Jack's employer have a nice energy to them – Arkin distant and patrician, Patrick professional and predatory.
Ford, though, is the star of this film – and he demonstrates yet again why he can make material like this work even when it perhaps shouldn't. Ford's a great action hero precisely because he's not an action hero; he spends a lot of time shuddering with fear before he steels himself to act, hiding behind heavy objects so he doesn't get killed before he springs into action. In essence, he tells us he's as scared as we would be – and we let ourselves think we'd be as brave as he is when the time to do what must be done comes around. Firewall also may be about high-tech security, but the people who made it thankfully seem to know that, frankly, there's nothing more boring than computer crime, primarily because we've all seen people type before. Forte's script includes enough complications and tense moments to make us care – and although we know how things are going to end, you do feel at least engaged in what's going on, something many 'thrillers' can't, or don't, actually provide.