Thursday, February 23, 2006

Harrison Ford as Harrison Ford

Ever since he abandoned us for his waif of a girlfriend, the delusional, GGI-baby-dancing Calista Flockhart, Harrison Ford has managed to stay off the Hollywood grid, most likely brooding, or whatever else he does in between brooding. And why shouldn’t he have? He, like no other Movie Star of his Boomer generation, has been the gold standard at the box office. Star Wars and Indiana Jones were so seminal as to create their own genre. Not only that, Harrison Ford seemed to have inaugurated a modern turn on a familiar archetype: the acerbic, anti-authority world-weary Man with a capital 'M'. The center of gravity for any movie, then, became the extent to which Harrison Ford could exude the gravitas synonymous with this archetype. So it was only logical that Han Solo and Indiana Jones become founts of masculinity, never truly Organization men, perpetually eschewing norms, unabashedly churlish and maybe even sexist at times, but always there to help us out of a pinch.

Alternatively, American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, and Blade Runner were just the type of art-house fare that conferred on him the knowing nods and begrudging respect of aficionados, even if he was still Harrison Ford the Movie Star. And who can forget his competent if short stint as CIA operative Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger? While the passable yet patently absurd Fugitive turnouts out to be, well, passable, Air Force One, even in those halcyon days that precede the Terror Wars of today, augured some kind finality. Harrison Ford the Movie Star, our cultural archetype for the Everyman, was quickly becoming a cliché of himself.

But all this shouldn’t matter. Six Days Seven Nights shouldn’t Matter. Hollywood Homicide, especially, shouldn’t matter. Anything from 1998 going forward shouldn’t matter for reasons less articulate but more quantifiable. $5.65 billion dollars: a great number in the abstract, yes, but all the more persuasive to the calculations of studio execs. This is the kind of monopoly money that entrenches a Movie Star and, perhaps, allows him to transcend type and self -- and just be. Having been an integral part of movies that grossed over or around $5.65 billion dollars internationally, the highest of any other actor (Samuel L. Jackson’s demurrals notwithstanding), Harrison Ford just is. And while none of this should matter, it is the problem that greets us in his latest offering, the claustrophobic thriller Firewall.

Jack Stanfield is the head of network security at a bank in Seattle. The conceit we are to believe is that Harrison Ford isn’t Harrison Ford but instead Jack Stanfield. Harrison Ford is 62 and his only familiarity with computer technology is as Han Solo. There were no such things as personal computers in 1977. But why quibble? That urbane and relentlessly charming Paul Bettany gets all campy as the film’s villain -- sneering, flaring his lips, looking as menacing as a hot-tempered Jimmy Carter. This is the type of method acting where one recites ‘paycheck’ over and over to suspended one’s own disbelief. Virginia Madsen as Harrison Ford’s wife similarly ratchets up the dolor:
“Who’s picking their scripts?” is one question.

But because the movie’s name is Firewall and Mr. Stanfield works at a bank: expect the villain to use the family as leverage, declaring to kill them if $100 million dollars isn’t transferred from the bank into his offshore account. And of course the $100 million dollars sounds derivative; the movie isn’t shy about its banality. In a way, though, it is novel that they wire Mr. Stanfield with modern accouterments, so we and they are able to follow his every move. One slip-up and that’s it for his family. Although when said slip-up comes about, Paul Bettany is unserious. A villain must be serious in his convictions otherwise he’s not a villain -- he’s just simulacrum. When a villain says he’s going to break your son’s knee -- he should. And when a villain starts killing his own henchmen -- who’d have a hard time convincing SAG that they were actors -- it’s not only a logistical mess, it hurts morale and is flat out silly. I say break the boy’s knee.

We are hopeful when Virginia Madsen says to her daughter “This is going to be over very soon”, but she is lying, there is still another interminable hour. What follows is Harrison Ford with implacable brow; Harrison Ford and inaudible grunts; Harrison Ford running toward the camera, smoldering with intensity or consternation or hunger; Harrison Ford scaling buildings; Harrison Ford bludgeoning a man to death with a coffee urn; Harrison Ford skulking in the corner, somehow being setup for another murder; Harrison Ford standing over his friend’s dead body, unthinkingly grabbing the gun that killed him and leaving his prints; Harrison Ford tracking blood all over the walls. Let us all remember that Harrison Ford is a mature 62. He just may be getting too old for this.

The badness of this movie almost seems purposeful. At the mercy of convention, the director seems to have decided to cleave so single-mindedly to genre that the movie is left without stylistic variation. And the technology meme is just too ephemeral for a movie purportedly called Firewall. But the movie ultimately announces its own badness by recycling a cliché: Harrison Ford. Excuse me for being under-whelmed, but Mr. Ford has moved from Archetype to Cliché, his former identity buried under heaps and heap of re-presentation. Harrison Ford is indistinguishable from any roles he portrays because Harrison Ford is always Harrison Ford. Why isn’t this a problem for, say, Anthony Hopkins? Simple. Movie Stars get old; Actors get better parts.

1 comment:

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