This latest round of releases from Warner mark a significant change in the studio's approach to Blu-ray, because with the exception of 'Full Metal Jacket,' Warner has switched from using the MPEG-2 compression codec to VC-1, which the studio has been using from the start on its counterpart HD DVD releases.
Since each of these movies have previously been released on HD DVD, as we did with Warner's first wave Blu-ray releases, our reviews of these titles will pay particular attention to how the two formats compare.
For a more in-depth look at the state of the format war following the release of these four titles from Warner, check out our feature article, "Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: Round Two -- The Next Dimension?."
Judging by the box office fate that has greeted Harrison Ford's post-millennium efforts, it is fair to say that the actor's glory years were back in the '80s and '90s. Where Ford's name on the top of the marquee once meant you were going to get either a franchise blockbuster ('Star Wars,' 'Indiana Jones'), a top-notch action-thriller ('The Fugitive,' 'Patriot Games') or an Oscar-caliber drama ('Witness,' 'Working Girl'), his last few anemic efforts ('K19: The Widowmaker,' 'Hollywood Homicide') had D.O.A. stamped all over them, having been both critically lambasted and commercially ignored. Now add to that list 'Firewall,' a thoroughly by-the-numbers, would-be hi-tech thriller that again failed to reverse Ford's declining box office fortunes.
It's an ordinary day at Landrock Pacific Bank -- ordinary for everyone except I.T. expert Jack Stanfield (Ford). His wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and children are being held hostage back at home, and the kidnappers, led by the ruthless Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) have only one demand: Jack must heist $100 million from the bank's state-of-the-art security system he himself helped to design. Showing an "everyman's vulnerability, strength and resourcefulness" (at least according to the back of the DVD box), Stanfield must stay one step ahead of Cox if he is to rescue his family and single-handedly foil his adversaries' fool-proof plan. Think he's gonna do it?
What is most surprising about 'Firewall' is how formulaic it all is, coming so late in the "innocent man caught in Kaftka-esque nightmare" genre, which was popularized by such '90s thrillers as the Ford vehicles 'The Fugitive' and 'Frantic' and anything starring Michael Douglas. Aside from the high-concept hook of having the villain mastermind his scheme using the latest Internet technology (a device which is tossed out of the window by the end of the second act anyway), there is not a single plot contrivance or "surprise twist" we don't recognize from a dozen other, better thrillers. Even the climax is a disappointment, because it's so lazy it can't even put a hip spin on the obligatory duel-to-the-death between hero and villain. (Oh, c'mon now, you really didn't think 'Firewall' would end any other way, did you?)
Admittedly, some of 'Firewall' is fun in that brain-dead popcorn movie kind of way. But it is also very lazy. Ford seems to be going through the motions and just collecting another $15 million payday, and even the usually lively Bettany, despite a few icy glares, seems to be phoning it in. Only Madsen steps up to the plate, but hers is such a thankless role even the always-spirited Oscar nominee can't turn shit into gold. And as directed by Richard Loncraine ('Wimbeldon,' 'Band of Brothers'), 'Firewall' is surprisingly lacking in style -- if you're stuck directing a script as predictable as this, at least show it to us in a way we haven't seen before. While admittedly I wasn't expecting great things from 'Firewall,' given the talent involved, it should have been better than just the barely competent.
The only new release among Warner's second wave of Blu-ray releases, 'Firewall' looks quite good, just as it did on HD DVD (see our original HD DVD review). This is one very clean and detailed picture, the kind that I find hard to fault even if it never totally rocked your world.
I should note at this point that the Blu-ray version of 'Firewall' is significantly more roomy as a BD-25 (25GB) than its HD DVD counterpart, which is currently available only as an HD DVD/DVD combo disc, with the HD DVD side limited to a single-layer and 15GB max of storage space
So, how do we compare the same title on both formats? For this second wave of Warner Blu-ray versus HD DVD reviews, I again hooked up my Toshiba HD DVD and Samsung Blu-ray players to our reference HD monitor (the Toshiba via 1080i, the Samsung via 1080p, per what each player current supports) using both HDMI and component outputs. This time, however, I mixed up the comparison in two ways. First, I used an outboard video switcher to route the signals, to avoid the cropping issues I previously experienced with the Samsung when I reviewed the first batch of Warner releases. Second, and more importantly, I forced a friend of mine (who owed me some big time payback) to come over and orchestrate a "blind" viewing test. He'd flick the switcher between the Blu-ray and HD DVD signals, and not tell me which was which. Sneaky, huh?
The result was that for round two, any differences between the Blu-ray and HD DVD were just about indistinguishable. For 'Firewall,' I compared three full scenes -- the opening credit montage, an early sequence where Harrison Ford attempts to use an office worker as a decoy, and the climactic rescue in the desert house -- as well as a few sporadic short segments, and I could scarcely tell a dime's worth of difference the two formats. And that's despite the fact that the Blu-ray has a full 10GB extra to work with, as the HD DVD version of 'Firewall' was a single-layer combo DVD release (though the Blu-ray does have to squeeze in all the extras that were previously relegated to the DVD side of the combo version). But aside from a slightly darker cast on the Blu-ray, just as I noticed on my first round of Blu-ray versus HD DVD comparisons -- though it is so minor it could just as easily be attributable to slight differences in connections or the hardware -- I would say the Blu-ray and the HD DVD are like Xerox copies of each other. I highly suspect that any differences one might find noticeable are entirely hardware-specific, and not really inherent in the software.
Certainly, there isn't much to complain about with 'Firewall' on Blu-ray. The print is whistle-clean, with rock solid blacks and excellent contrast overall. Somewhat unique for a modern film, 'Firewall's visual style uses a fair amount of diffused lighting and filters, which sometimes gives the picture a less-than-sharp look in select shots. However, this appears to be intentional, and overall this transfer is still very three-dimensional. Shadow delineation is also well above average, with fine details visible in even the darkest scenes. Colors, too, are very well rendered, especially the rich orange fleshtones and some subtle uses of green and purple. However, the film's color palette also seems a tad bit subdued on purpose, which gives some of the rainy exteriors a slightly drab, flat appearance. Otherwise, this is a very good Blu-ray presentation.
Unlike the HD DVD release of 'Firewall,' which contained a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track, the Blu-ray version is presented in standard Dolby Digital. But remember that both are encoded at the exact same bitrate of 640kbps, and the Blu-ray format doesn't require the use of Dolby Digital-Plus anyway, except for recordings that utilize more than six channels (such as a 6.1 or 7.1 mix). That caveat aside, like the transfer, the Dolby Digital track here is above-average if not truly exceptional.
Primarily a quiet mix that's front heavy, the sound design of 'Firewall' only comes alive during the action scenes (which are rather infrequent). In those moments, directionality is fairly aggressive, with frequent uses of localized effects in the rears and near-transparent imaging. Dynamic range is also wide and spacious, with clean highs and fairly deep low bass.
Conversely, the film's quieter passages are rather dull. There is little sense of envelopment or atmosphere, with only the occasional use of subtle sound effects. I was also surprised that the score wasn't more pronounced in the mix, but then in all honesty it is a pretty unmemorable soundtrack anyway (no offense to composer Alexandre Desplat -- oops). In the end, 'Firewall's soundtrack delivers -- it just doesn't excel.
Unlike the combo HD DVD/DVD release, 'Firewall' on Blu-ray is a single-side affair, with all of the extras on the same side of the disc. Woo-hoo! No more flipping! Unfortunately, the included supplements are just as dull watching them the second time around, so it is hard to get too excited.
Aside from the film's theatrical trailer (presented in 2.35:1), the only other extras are two featurettes. "'Firewall': Decoded" is a 15-minute conversation between Harrison Ford and director Richard Loncraine. These two discuss the film at times like it is Shakespeare, which is unintentionally humorous. I also hate to admit it but Ford is pretty pretentious, so even fifteen minutes was more than enough time to spend with the Hollywood's most overpaid curmudgeon. The second featurette is "Writing a Thriller," a thrifty four-minute solo chat with screenwriter Joe Forte. He, too, takes 'Firewall' a bit too seriously, but his comments on writing a hostage thriller post-9/11 are interesting, as are his insights into the film's rather thin characters. So if you're at all interested in the making of 'Firewall,' both of these featurettes are worth watching.
'Firewall' is a very predictable, routine thriller that plays just fine as a mindless Saturday night rental, but it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to watch this one more than once. As far as the Blu-ray goes, you do get a nice transfer and soundtrack, and extras that are as formulaic as the film. I also could not detect any apparent video or audio differences versus the HD DVD, so it's another point-set-match for the those keeping tabs on the format war. But since this film is kinda weak anyway, I'd recommend a Netflix rental for this one unless you are a diehard Harrison Ford fan.