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Better than you’ve heard: Firewall and The Pink Panther

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Better than you’ve heard: <em>Firewall</em> and <em>The Pink Panther</em>

[Author’s Note: Andrew Sarris once ended a review of the Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan kidnap drama Proof of Life by telling his readers, “See it. It’s better than you’ve heard.” I felt the same way about two mostly maligned Hollywood movies that opened this month, Firewall and The Pink Panther. A review of both movies follows, somewhat expanded from the version that appeared in the last issue of New York Press.]

Firewall and The Pink Panther pose the same problem for critics: how to resist writing knee-jerk pans of movies that look an awful lot like Hollywood Product, and that star aging icons who haven’t connected with audiences in years?

On paper, both films seem like tempting targets. The kidnap thriller Firewall expects us to believe that 63-year old Harrison Ford, arguably the most underachieving A-list star in the history of American movies, and very much an emblem of mid-twentieth-century macho, is believable as an early 21st-century computer security expert and a settled-yet-virile husband to Virginia Madsen, who’s 20 years his junior. Added to that, Firewall is yet another example of what I call a Business Class Thriller, tailor made to engross upper-middle-class dads who spend lots of time on airplanes. The hero is usually, and not at all coincidentally, a married forty or fiftysomething suburban dad who spends most of his time filing paperwork but can still kick ass when the occasion warrants, a role tailored for Harrison Ford. The Pink Panther, meanwhile, asks us not just to accept an actor besides Peter Sellers in the role of bumbling French inspector Jacques Clouseau, but to believe that star Steve Martin, whose career took a sharp left turn into New Yorker country about 15 years ago, can still work magic in the type of deranged slapstick romp that hasn’t been central to his career since the early ’90s. Both films seem like the sorts of films for which critics can start composing their pans en route to the screening room.

But there’s a problem with this stock response: both Firewall and The Pink Panther are entertaining, well crafted, somewhat eccentric Hollywood movies.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying these are revelatory films that will deepen with repeat viewings. I’m saying they’re the sorts of films New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently complained weren’t being made anymore: foursquare genre pictures with production values, stars and a wee bit of personality; not artful, exactly, but lively and purposeful enough to make you think maybe the studio machine isn’t ready for the scrap heap just yet.

The Ford film’s marketing campaign sells it as another domestic thriller with technology-run-amok elements, along the lines of Panic Room or Cellular. It is that, but it’s also something more: a two-fisted parable of the digital wall that’s arisen between our private lives and the world. Director Richard Loncraine (Richard III) and screenwriter Joe Forte push the hero and his family from a complacent, nearly virtual existence (they live on the Internet, instant message each other in their own house and babble incessantly on cellphones) to a brutally visceral struggle for survival, gradually moving them from the cocoon of their suburban fortress into remote mountain terrain where cellphones and broadband connections don’t reach. This isn’t a preachy or heady film, just a lean formula thriller that exists not in GenreLand, but in a semblance of this world, like Fatal Attraction or Unlawful Entry. Its cultural relevance is tattooed on its biceps.

Ford’s character, Jack Stanfield, who designed the computer security system for Landrock Pacific, a small Seattle-based banking chain, is targeted by sociopathic mastermind Bill Cox (a silky, menacing Paul Bettany, purring like a baby James Mason). The bad guy ensnares Jack in a Fugitive-like trap, saddling him with $95,000 in nonexistent offshore gambling debts and exacerbating tension between him, his co-workers (Alan Arkin and Robert Forster) and representatives from the international bank that’s in negotiations to absorb Jack’s chain. Then Cox holds Jack’s wife and two kids hostage and threatens to kill them if Jack doesn’t help him steal hundreds of millions from Jack’s employers. You can guess where this is going: poor Jack isn’t just being strongarmed into acting as the inside man in a bank heist, he’s being set up to take the fall later.

But the movie isn’t content to dwell in a single genre for its entire running time. The first third feels like an old time B-movie kidnap drama à la The Petrified Forest or The Desperate Hours; the middle third is a high tech cat and mouse game, with the hero trying to outsmart his tormentors. The surprising and often exhilirating final third relocates the characters from the city to the mountainous hinterlands, recalling such stoic action westerns as Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur and Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, in which fugitive villains move through hostile natural terrain with hostages in tow. All these disparate movies share a sincere interest in moral choice, in the psychological dynamics that enable criminals to do their thing while evading the admission that they’re scum. Cox has no qualms about tormenting Jack and his family because he’s a remorseless brute, but his men are vulnerable to manipulation by the Stanfields, who instinctively realize their best bet for survival is to sow distrust among the hot-tempered kidnappers and charm the semi-decent ones.

Firewall is generic as hell—literally generic, in the sense that it’s practically a smorgasbord of popular movie formats—but it’s made with care and a sense of humanity that raises it above mere routine. I liked Ford’s age-and-class-appropriate performance; he’s not playing an Indiana Jones or even a Jack Ryan type, but an ordinary middle-class husband and father who falls down when he runs through the woods and clutches the injured hand he used to commit his first killing. I liked Ford’s lived-in byplay with his gal Friday at the bank (Mary Lynn Raskjub, who’s a couple of performances away from national treasure status) and the silent reaction shots of kidnappers trying to hide their opinions of Cox’s cruelty. Most of all, I liked how Loncraine and Forte prove their seriousness with stray touches that tease out the movie’s themes. A closeup of what appears to be a tropical fish tank pulls back to reveal that it’s actually a computer screen with a fish tank screen saver; a briefly-glimpsed TV shows the astronauts of Forbidden Planet blindly lobbing laser bolts at the film’s monster, an invisible id beast whose wrath is felt from beyond, much like Cox’s baddie, who wreaks havoc through cyberspace.

Shawn Levy’s remake of The Pink Panther isn’t art, either, but to invoke Sarris, it’s a hell of a lot better and funnier than you’ve heard, and it manages the nearly impossible feat of making you forget about Peter Sellers for 90 minutes. The plot has something to do with soccer coach and lothario Jason Statham, possessor of the Pink Panther diamond, getting shot dead while his lover Xania (Beyoncé Knowles) and thousands of soccer fans look on. National police chief Dreyfus (Kevin Kline in Herbert Lom’s old part) hires podunk cop Clouseau to bungle the case so he can step in later, solve it and win the presidential medal he’s always coveted.

But plot is irrelevant in a movie like this, which is all about setting up demented situations and letting the actors run with them. I laughed harder at The Pink Panther than at any Martin film since Bowfinger. Martin’s Clouseau is as moronic and smugly righteous and borderline incomprehensible as Sellers’, but more charming and lyrical, like a Harold Lloyd character. His scenes with stolid partner Ponton (Jean Reno) are gems of deadpan goofiness (their dance duet is a stupid hoot), and his scenes opposite police secretary Nicole (sexy, daffy Emily Mortimer) have some of the nutball magic that animated Martin’s relationship with Bernadette Peters in The Jerk. They’re idiot sprites who’ve found each other. Their super-tentative courtship (aware of professional codes, they interact as if separated by an electric fence) is just marvelous, and produces some of the sweetest faux-poetic yammering this side of Punch-Drunk Love. (“A woman is like an artichoke,” Clouseau intones. “You have to do a lot of work before you get to her heart.”) They’re so great together that I wish the whole movie had been about them; hopefully the inevitable sequel will rectify that.

Interweaving Clouseau scenes and non-Clouseau scenes at a brisk clip throughout, this remake moves better than any of the Panther movies directed by creator Blake Edwards in the 1970s, films that were hobbled by lurching rhythms and died when Sellers was offscreen. There are five or six bits in The Pink Panther that are as hilarious as anything Martin has done, including an imbecilic twist on Good Cop/Bad Cop and a five-minute scene involving Clouseau and an accent removal coach that will be quoted at any restaurant that serves hamburgers. Martin and Levy’s Panther plows through one dumbass comic setpiece after another with the sureness of a class clown who just figured out how to make people spit milk through their noses.

Reporting a suspect’s murder, Ponton tells Clouseau, “He was shot in the head.” Clouseau: “Was it fatal?” Ponton: “Yes.” Clouseau: “How fatal?” Ponton: “Completely.”

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.