'Firewall'

Just as gardeners keep a fond eye out for the first hardy crocuses of spring, so film people are always eager for the year's first major Hollywood film, the one with the star big enough to plaster on bus stop kiosks all over town. It's a tough job, and Harrison Ford in "Firewall" has it this year.

One of the most deservedly popular of modern leading men, the marquee face of films with a reported $5.5-billion worldwide gross, Ford's last two pictures were 2003's "Hollywood Homicide" and 2002's "K19: The Widowmaker," ventures which did not exactly set anyone on fire. "Firewall" is not likely to do much better.

For though it is a reasonable facsimile of a successful thriller, this film (named after a barrier that protects computers from hackers) never manages to be more than mildly effective. While it's set in the hyper-modern world of computer thievery, its plot outline and script are distressingly familiar. What we essentially have here is an old-fashioned, not always convincing B picture with A-list stars.

Those B's were often known for their professionalism, and this film, which costars Paul Bettany and Virginia Madsen, demonstrates that as well. Richard Loncraine, with nearly 40 years of TV and film directing and at least one great film, the Ian McKellen-starring "Richard III," to his credit, is nothing if not a seasoned veteran. But there is only so much that can be done with the film's muddled scenario.

As for the always empathetic Ford, he starts the film looking vaguely weary and ends up increasingly exasperated, irritated and distraught. This is largely due to the multiple perils Joe Forte's script places him in, but it's hard not to wonder if the film itself didn't start to get on his nerves.

Ford plays Jack Stanfield, for 20 years the computer security specialist for Seattle's fictional Landrock Pacific Bank. It's not the best of times for our Jack, even in the early going. His outfit is about to be acquired by massive Accuwest, and he and the big firm's pit bull security chief Gary Mitchell (an effective Robert Patrick) do not see eye to eye.

Fortunately, Jack has the love and support of a truly generic family, predictable down to a pair of bickering kids and a cute dog named Rusty. Madsen does as much as anyone could to humanize wife Beth, an architect and a homemaker, but even she and Ford can only accomplish so much with "I don't deserve you"/"No, you don't" style domestic patter.

Served much better by the script is the villainous Bill Cox, smartly played by Bettany (soon to be even badder in "The Da Vinci Code"). A well-mannered psychotic, Bill gets to say snarky things like "Don't imagine for one second I just blundered in out of the rain" (it is Seattle, after all) and be in charge of a criminal gang that takes Jack's wife and family hostage.

Given that Jack is a powerful figure at a bank, it is not a stretch to figure out why his family has been kidnapped, but we still have to sit though stretches of "who are you, what do you want?" dialogue. We also have to watch various desultory attempts by Jack to slip out of Bill's grasp, attempts which we know will be abortive because success would bring the movie to an abrupt close.

After Bill reveals his nefarious scheme, it is up to Jack to execute it or, harsh as it sounds, Bill and company will execute his family. The kind of cat-and-mouse game that now results manages to be diverting at times, but after Jack decides enough is enough and goes all Charles Bronson on everyone, this over-plotted and under-written film loses its already tenuous plausibility. It's always satisfying to see Harrison Ford stand up for all that's decent and right, but it's hard not to wish he didn't wait for a better film to do it in.

"Firewall'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence

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