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FIREWALL – Alexandre Desplat

February 10, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s funny how, all of a sudden, a composer comes out of nowhere and becomes one of your favourites. French composer Alexandre Desplat first appeared on the international scene in 2000 with his elegant score for the chess-themed romantic drama The Luzhin Defence; since then, through scores such as Girl With a Pearl Earring, Birth, Hostage, The Upside of Anger and Syriana, he has risen to become arguably the most exciting Gallic composer since Georges Delerue, with the capacity to write both thrilling action music and sensitive orchestral material with equal skill. Two Golden Globe nominations and a recent César Award for ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ would seem to reinforce his place in the bigger scheme of things. His score for Firewall will hopefully be just as well received, and cement his position as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

An enjoyable hi-tech thriller, Firewall stars Harrison Ford as Jack Stanfield, a bank executive in charge of financial security, whose life is thrown into turmoil when a gang of international thieves led by Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) invades his house and kidnaps his family (wife Virginia Madsen, daughter Carly Schroeder, son Jimmy Bennett). Cox wants Jack to break through his own electronic security system and transfer $100,000,000 from various accounts, and threatens to kill his family unless he complies. Unfortunately for Cox, Jack doesn’t want play, especially when he realises that he’s going to take the fall for theft, embezzlement and murder if he succeeds in saving his family; so, with his secretary Janet (Mary-Lynn Rajskub) his only ally, he sets about foiling the crooks plan and saving the day.

Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have been a stretch for Harrison Ford to play this kind of role with ease. At the age of 63, he is capable of pulling off the harassed and pressurised bank executive role well, perfectly conveying his simmering anger and controlled frustration at his plight, while retaining control of his emotions in order to save his family. Credibility is stretched, however, when he goes toe-to-toe with 35-year-old Paul Bettany and still beats him in a free-for-all fist fight. Ford was coming to the end of his physicality in the mid 90s, with The Fugitive and Clear and Present Danger, and now he looks like your grandpa. He couldn’t win in a fight with Bettany in real life if you gave him a baseball bat. Beyond this slight mis-casting, everything else about Firewall is top-notch, with a tight plot, plenty of techno speak, sadistic villains, lots of tense action, chase scenes, good acting, and everything else besides. Richard Loncraine isn’t a director you usually associate with slick Hollywood action movies (his previous films include the Shakespearean drama Richard III and the romantic comedy Wimbledon), but he handles everything well and keeps the plot moving along at a fast, enjoyable pace.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is a close cousin of his cracking thriller score Hostage last year, with an increased an electronic element this time, but retaining all the pulsating orchestral inventiveness of the earlier score. In many ways, Desplat’s work is a prime example of everything that can be good about modern action music: there are themes and variations which work in leitmotivic faction throughout the score; the action sequences driven along by relentless tempos, served rather than overawed by the electronics; inventive use of the orchestra, and unusual instrumental touches to keep things interesting; and an effective emotional element which makes the plight of the protagonists more appealing. One can’t ask for anything more, really, and this is the second time in less than a year that Desplat has written music of this quality.

The score’s central theme is the Family Theme, written to represent the relationship between Ford and his family, which first appears, hesitantly on piano, during the otherwise edgy and subdued “Hostages”, before receiving a bold concert-statement in “The Family Theme”, where its tender melodic line is taken up by the entire orchestra, accompanied by magical harp waves and rhapsodic piano accompaniment. The finale, “Together Again”, allows the orchestra to rise to triumphant heights, restating the family theme in vibrant fashion to bring the score to a satisfying close.

The action music is excellent. The wonderful opening, “Firewall”, is a swirling, angry ostinato enlivened by some gnashing, Goldenthal-style brass clusters and a great deal of thrust and power, leaving the listener in no doubt that this is a score to be reckoned with. “The Camera Dances” and “Looking for Help” both revisit the material heard in the main title, working in some offbeat percussion elements in the former, and rapid string rhythms in the latter. “The Epi-Pen” is a murderous, angry action cue featuring a throbbing electric guitar in the mix, adding a further level of vicious intensity to the scene of young Jimmy’s anaphylactic shock, before calmly restating a relieved version of the family theme as the life-saving epinephrine injection takes effect. “The Fight”, which underscores the conclusive mano-a-mano confrontation between Jack and Cox at the lake house, adds a sense of danger and realism to a rather unrealistic situation, with unusually effective xylophone-and-drum kit driven action cues, ragged brass blasts, the return of the electric guitar, a subtle synthesised undercurrent, and thunderous dissonance a-plenty.

The suspense music, in cues such as “Breaking In”, is tense and impressive, giving the scenes of subversive sneaking around just the right amount of dramatic thrust and kinetic movement. The 10-minute “Escape from the Bank” is the score’s tour-de-force set piece, and sees Desplat maintaining the energy levels throughout the course of the cue with throbbing orchestral pulses, cool electronic enhancements, rumbling pianos, clever instrumental touches and inventive orchestrations, and a never-ending sense of imminent danger and reluctant movement. It’s great stuff.

There’s a touch of Bernard Herrmann, and a touch of 90s Jerry Goldsmith, in some of Desplat’s music here, but they great thing about Desplat is that he doesn’t really sound like anyone else, like so many modern composers do. He sounds like himself, and to have brought such an identifiable and personal sound to Hollywood in 2006 is a remarkable – and commendable – thing to have achieved. The score is filled with delightful orchestral touches which Desplat obviously had a great deal of fun finding ways to use: the echoing, melting trumpets at the beginning of “Surveillance”; the enormous crashing piano chord which concludes “Breaking In”; the dancing woodwinds and big-city vibrancy in “The Bank”; the mind-blowing flutter-tongue brasses in “Looking for Help”. Unusually, Desplat was given a second opportunity to score a scene of young Jimmy Bennett crawling on his hands and knees through the walls of a hi-tech house to escape the bad guys (Bennett appeared in a similar role in Hostage), and he cheekily used another recorder solo to do it!

Fans of contemporary action music will love Firewall, as will anyone who (like me) thought Hostage was one of the most refreshing thriller scores to emerge in Hollywood in recent years. I confidently predict that Alexandre Desplat will go on to become a major player in Hollywood in future years – which can only be a good thing. The film music industry needs talented, creative, intelligent individuals like Desplat to keep film music fresh at a time when far too much of what Hollywood produces is stale and unoriginal. The fact that John Williams’s two lead orchestrators, Conrad Pope and Eddie Karam, are now working with Desplat and is probably an indicator of his talents and the esteem in which he is held. I can’t recommend this score highly enough.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Firewall (3:16)
  • Surveillance (3:38)
  • Breaking In (2:56)
  • The Bank (0:57)
  • First Night (1:21)
  • Hostages (3:24)
  • The Camera Dances (3:47)
  • The Epi-Pen (3:59)
  • The Family Theme (1:21)
  • Escape From The Bank (10:23)
  • Looking For Help (3:04)
  • Exchanging The Files (2:10)
  • The Fight (7:14)
  • Rainy Day (3:15)
  • Together Again (1:20)

Running Time: 52 minutes 14 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6715 (2006)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat, Conrad Pope, Eddie Karam, Erik Lundborg, Nan Schwartz Mishkin, Jeffrey Schindler and Clifford Tasner. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Joe E. Rand. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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