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MOVIE REVIEW

Dependable Ford covers old ground in 'Firewall'

You're forgiven if the title of the new Harrison-Ford-saves-his-family thriller doesn't exactly get your pulse pounding. As used here, ''Firewall" is an Internet security term, which is like naming an action movie ''Proxy Server!" or ''SOCKS Protocol." It promises not car chases but pale IT technicians staring into banks of computers.

Actually, we get both, since Ford plays Jack Stanfield, a Seattle network security exec who has to rob his own bank via computer if he doesn't want the bad guys to kill his wife (Virginia Madsen) and kids (Carly Schroeder and Jimmy Bennett). As directed by Richard Loncraine (''Richard III," ''Wimbledon"), the movie's competent stuff, but it also represents professionalism in the service of absolutely nothing. Even Ford knows he's been down this road too often; his performance has a grim intensity and not a shred of spontaneity.

A movie like this needs a suave, amoral villain, so here's Paul Bettany (''Master and Commander") as Bill Cox, a pleasant British fellow who pushes into Jack's suburban house one night along with a mixed quartet of young men carrying automatic weapons. Taking the family hostage, they settle in for the long haul, and Bill accompanies Jack to the bank's downtown offices in the morning for the next stage of his plan.

The hero has been wired for sound and video by the high-tech villains; they have remote access to his office PC; he's essentially a hostage with freedom of movement. This makes for suspenseful comedy for a few scenes as Jack behaves like a possessed executive puppet in front of his boss (Alan Arkin), business rival (Robert Patrick, narrowing his ferrety eyes), and secretary (Mary Lynn Rajskub of ''24," once again becoming a cheerfully flaky ally to a Jack in trouble).

At home, meanwhile, the kidnappers are given one personality trait apiece -- there's the thug, the smug, the sweet, and the lunchmeat -- and that's more than Jack's family gets. ''Firewall" cannily plays to the fears of modern parenting with a scene involving a peanut-allergy reaction and a missing EpiPen, and it sets the stakes high with a surveillance camera in each room of the house, but the kids are strictly two-dimensional, and as for Madsen, this is the thanks she gets for her luminous, Oscar-nominated performance in last year's ''Sideways"? As scripted by Joe Forte, the cute/annoying family dog gets to show more personality.

The criminals' plan involves computers and wire transfers and offshore bank accounts, and after a certain point you begin to think that walking into the bank carrying guns and wearing masks would probably have been easier. There are other plot holes (four days indoors and the dog doesn't have to go?) but, dispiritingly, ''Firewall" is one of those movies where every detail in the first act is designed to pay off by the third. That remote-control toy car Jack's son plays with has to come back somehow, and it does. There's no air in the movie, nothing left to chance -- it's all been story-conferenced to death.

But you pays your money to see Harrison Ford go medieval on a bunch of punks in the name of enraged American fatherhood and eventually you get just that, even if the one exploding car seems contractually stipulated rather than dramatically necessary. The most interesting bits in ''Firewall" come earlier, when Ford shares the screen with Rajskub or a bank manager played by Brenda Crichlow, and his character almost cracks from the mounting strain. At such points you're not sure if Jack is weeping for his family or Ford is weeping for his career.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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