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Past Their Prime 

Firewall / The Pink Panther: *1/2

If ever there existed a compelling argument as to why Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford should not proceed with their long-marinating plan to make a fourth Indiana Jones movie, here it is in the form of Firewall. At 63, Ford is already looking the worse for wear; by the time the Indy flick rolls, he'll be more at ease cracking arthritic joints than cracking that whip.

Ford hasn't appeared in a theatrical release since 2003's excremental Hollywood Homicide, but don't expect Firewall to catapult him back up to the apex of the A-list. Has any superstar of the past 20 years bungled his career as thoroughly as Ford? It's only been about a decade since blockbusters like The Fugitive and Air Force One kept him at the head of the class alongside Hanks, Cruise and Gibson, but one bad choice after another has dropped him out of contention while the other three actors continue to drive the box office. His fall from popular grace would be easier to swallow if his duds were at least artistic productions that found him attempting to stretch or make personal statements, but instead, they were safe, predictable choices that offered nothing new -- either to himself or audiences. (Ford famously turned down the Michael Douglas role in Traffic, not long after announcing that he was ready to start making edgy, provocative films.)

Firewall is such a tired copy of Ford's past adventures that it almost verges on parody. Once again, the actor plays an upstanding guy who must save his family from dangerous foreigners, an angle previously tapped in Air Force One and Patriot Games (to name but two). In this case, he's Jack Stanfield, a bank executive responsible for creating the computer programs that prevent the facility from ever getting hacked. But when Eurotrash bandit Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) and his gang of techies snatch Jack's wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and their two children, our hero has no choice but to aid them in their scheme to siphon millions of dollars from the accounts of the bank's wealthiest clients. This in turn puts Jack on the run, though this time he doesn't have to worry about Tommy Lee Jones being hot on his trail.

Nothing about the earthy Ford screams, "computer wiz," so the scenes in which he's hunched over a keyboard figuring out how to use spare parts from an iPod and a fax machine to help him achieve his goals fail to convince. Yet they're no more preposterous than the action sequences in which Ford must scale down the side of a tall building like Spider-Man or swing a mean pickax behind his back to take down a kidnapper. There's no shame in wanting to hold onto one's youth, but there comes a time when a person has to let go -- and for Ford, that time has clearly come and gone.

Director Richard Loncraine milks a fair amount of suspense from the scenes in which the thugs intimidate Beth and the kids, but that tension quickly dissipates as Joe Forte's screenplay grows exceedingly ludicrous. It all culminates with a risible plot twist involving -- of all things -- the family mutt.

Madsen, whose career was revived via her smashing turn in Sideways, finds herself relegated to cheerleader status as her character has nothing to do except wait to get saved by her hubby -- she doesn't even warrant an Anne Archer moment to call her own. Bettany appears to be having fun as the British baddie, though he's a lightweight compared to Alan Rickman's similarly overreaching cad in Die Hard. Three strong actors who can always be counted on to enliven a production -- Robert Forster, Robert Patrick and Alan Arkin -- promisingly pop up in an early scene and then find their roles fading into whispery nothings as the movie progresses.

As for Ford, it's almost painful to watch him going through the motions here. The twinkle of mischievousness and sprinkle of levity that he brought to many of his most memorable films -- even the dramas like The Fugitive and Witness -- are conspicuously missing here, replaced by a cranky fatigue that's difficult to watch and impossible to enjoy. Indiana Jones 4 is a dubious idea, but might we suggest an On Golden Pond remake as an alternate?

SUFFERING FROM A particularly misguided delusion of grandeur, Steve Martin has elected to co-write and star in a new version of The Pink Panther. But why stop there? While he's busy plundering the cemetery of iconic movie roles, he might as well try his hand at another Casablanca or a new Citizen Kane. It would only be a slightly less ludicrous endeavor.

Certain film characters pass from hand to hand over the years, while others remain firmly attached to the actor who created the role. The part of James Bond has been essayed throughout the decades by a range of performers, to little ill effect -- ditto for Tarzan, Batman and shamuses like Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer. On the other hand, there should only be one Rick Blaine, one Charles Foster Kane, one Han Solo ... and one Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

To be fair, even series creator Blake Edwards didn't know what he had at first. The original 1964 film only features Clouseau in a supporting role, with the majority of the running time spent on the efforts of a sophisticated jewel thief (David Niven) to snatch a priceless bauble known as "The Pink Panther." But it immediately became obvious -- to Edwards and to viewers -- that the real prize here was the performance by Peter Sellers as the bumbling police inspector. Before the year was out, Edwards had refashioned a Broadway farce called A Shot In the Dark as a starring vehicle for Sellers and his comic creation. The names of Peter Sellers and Jacques Clouseau became synonymous from there on out, with the actor returning to the role several times before his death in 1980.

Steve Martin isn't the first actor to try to carve the franchise in his own image: Alan Arkin played the role in the forgotten Inspector Clouseau, Ted Wass stumbled through Curse of the Pink Panther and, worst of all, Roberto Benigni headlined the atrocious Son of the Pink Panther (had Academy members recalled this film while gushing over Life Is Beautiful, they never would have given that gibbering fool a Best Actor Oscar). But despite his own comic credentials, Martin is playing a dead man's hand here. Sellers' particular brand of comic genius was evident in every frame of his Clouseau pictures -- his own real-life eccentricities and devotion to his craft saw to that -- and try as he might, Martin is never able to make the role his own. His amiable buffoon has more in common with his own past nitwits -- those seen in The Jerk and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- than with anything Edwards and Sellers envisioned for the character.

Were the movie surrounding Martin a top-flight comedy, it might be easier to let him slide in the role. But this new Panther is as clumsy as its leading figure, an uncomfortable attempt to tap into the essence of the classic Panther films while updating it for modern audiences who might not know Inspector Clouseau from Inspector Javert. The basic story is prime material for this sort of outing -- a French soccer coach (an unbilled Jason Statham) is murdered during a championship game, and Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, too restrained to provide the original series' Herbert Lom with any serious competition) decides to put a moron in charge of the investigation so that he may quietly nab the culprit himself. Dreyfus settles on provincial policeman Clouseau, not aware that this imbecilic officer will embarrass him in ways he never dreamed possible.

For a movie that's been sitting for quite some time on the studio shelf, The Pink Panther isn't quite the out-and-out disaster one might fear. As Clouseau's sidekick, a clever cop named Ponton, Jean Reno steals the film with his deadpan demeanor, and a couple of sequences, including one in which Clouseau goes the "good cop-bad cop" route with a suspect ("That routine is usually performed with two cops," explains Ponton), are sturdy enough to have appeared in the Sellers/Clouseau canon. And a smooth cameo by Clive Owen as Agent 006 again proves that he would have made a great James Bond had he not taken himself out of the running.

But for the most part, the gags dreamed up by Martin and co-writers Len Blum and Michael Saltzman aren't particularly fresh, mildly amusing bits are repeated until they lose every ounce of appeal, and the efforts to cater to modern audiences (a pop performance by co-star Beyoncé Knowles, the unsettling image of Clouseau preparing to take Viagra) are ill-conceived. Most damaging of all, though, is the inconsistency in the central character. Sellers' Clouseau was a stand-offish moron through and through, and the fun was in watching how he repeatedly stumbled into solving the mysteries at hand. Martin, in that phase of life in which many aging actors try to endear themselves to audiences no matter the cost, softens Clouseau into this sweetly sentimental schlemiel who, at the end of the day, is able to solve the mystery through deductive reasoning and his knowledge of archaic laws (to say nothing of his inexplicable command of Chinese). It would seem impossible for anyone to confuse Inspector Clouseau with Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, but Martin appears to have managed it.


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