On-screen and over-the-hill

Posted: Feb 14, 2006 12:01 AM

Message to Harrison Ford’s agent: its time to take a page from the Jack Nicholson guidebook on acting.

When leading men reach a certain age, good scripts become as scarce as natural body parts on Rodeo Drive. Not sure if they can still carry the box office, studios offer aging icons only those roles the public is used to seeing them in, even when such casting stretches the bounds of reality (think 57-year-old Ford romancing 29-year-old Anne Heche in the abominable Six Days, Seven Nights).

Audiences know Ford for two kinds of roles: sarcastic but sexy heroes (Star Wars, Indiana Jones) and silent but sexy heroes (The Fugitive and all those Jack Ryan films). Accordingly, in the last 15 years, he has only veered from this formula two or three times, and even then, those films are not too far from his well-beaten path. What's worse, none display even a hint of self-deprecation or humor about the on-screen persona he has built.

Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, has acted in every genre from the silly (Anger Management) to the serious (Hoffa). He has played parts wherein he pokes fun at his reputation as an aging lothario (Something’s Got to Give) and parts that have him actually playing his age (About Schmidt), something Ford has yet to attempt since qualifying for senior citizen discounts.

Nicholson is even willing to take a back seat to a younger, easier-on-the-eyes actor when the part is meaty enough (A Few Good Men).

Granted, Ford probably hasn’t been offered the variety of jobs that Nicholson has, but that is no reason to accept a role every time some casting agent says she wants a “Harrison Ford-type.”

There’s nothing terribly wrong with Firewall, Ford’s latest stab at his old glory, but there’s nothing terribly right with it either. It’s the same ho-hum, serviceable thriller we’ve come to expect from him, only now his once grave voice has turned to gravel and his glower has become grumpiness.

Once again, he plays a man named Jack (is it just me, or is there an inordinate number of Jacks gracing screens big and small these days?) And again some very bad men are threatening his family, only this time he works for a bank instead of the government.

As the security chief for a chain of Seattle-based banks, Jack is uniquely positioned to hack into the bank’s computer system and wire transfer $100 million to an off-shore account in the Cayman Islands. Or at least that’s what a group of high tech thugs figure when they take Jack’s family hostage and use them as leverage to get him to complete the said bit of thievery.

Despite a couple of red herrings, Firewall plays out exactly as anyone who’s ever seen one of Ford’s previous thrillers might expect. Acquaintances and coworkers take him for a criminal; the family makes several failed attempts at escape. Halfway through the deal, Jack is pushed to the breaking point and turns the tables on his family’s abductors. The end result is a plot that looks like a collage of Ford’s previous movies.

Paul Bettany as head hostage-taker is the one sharp element in this otherwise dull display, giving his villain a depth that certainly wasn’t written into his dialogue. At times he seems threatening, at others scared and panicked, the way real criminals are likely to behave but seldom do on the big screen.

The script is fine, if a bit technical about the whole online banking aspect. And with another actor at the helm, the audience might have been able to sit back and enjoy the ride rather than measure how this Ford hero falls short his previous incarnations.

It only takes one well-performed, against-type role—no matter how small—to have Hollywood seeing an established star through new eyes. Former James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, an actor with far less star power to draw upon than Ford, recently proved with his hilarious, quirky turn in The Matador. So there’s no reason Ford couldn’t follow his and Nicholson’s lead to a new lease on his on-screen life.

There was once a good actor inside Harrison Ford. If he trusts himself to take on more challenging work in the future, maybe he and we can discover him again. In the meantime, it’s a better entertainment bet to just rent Air Force One.