Reviewed by: The Exile

The writers’ strike may be crippling Hollywood but the mobile phone is crippling writers. Things have reached the point where, if we were to impose a moratorium on mobile-phone-dependent plots, our only choices at the multiplex would be musicals or animation. Even if we leave aside those movies in which Nokia and Sprint are the lead characters (Cellular, One Missed Call and the upcoming Pacino vehicle, 88 Minutes), we’d still be hard pressed to name a movie without at least one plot-essential ring tone. It’s making writers lazy and audiences wonder why every movie feels like the one they just saw last week.

In Untraceable, the amorphous villain is the entire network of wireless communication: this is a film with distrust of the internet seeping from every frame and line of dialogue. A car is rendered useless by hacking into its computer system, and an innocent online dating service becomes a conduit for kidnapping. Along with bottom-feeding thrillers like FeardotCom and the repellent Saw franchise, this genre views cyberspace and wireless technology as little more than tools for sociopaths and facilitators of torture porn. Touching both bases, Untraceable treads a well-worn path through the serial-killer screenplay (in this case by Robert Fyvolent, Mark R Brinker and Allison Burnett), creating a story so familiar it might have been written by the very computers it maligns.

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Set in a dreary Portland, Oregon, the movie follows widowed mum Jennifer Marsh (an earnest Diane Lane), a cyber crimes expert for the FBI. Along with her colleague Griffin (played by Tom Hanks’ son, Colin) - a nerd with ‘imminent victim’ written all over him - Jennifer sets up stings to catch online sexual predators and perpetrators of identity theft. Then a new kind of criminal surfaces: a virtual maniac who constructs devilish machines, attaches unlucky victims and begins the process of killing them. The more people who visit his untraceable website - the jolly-sounding Killwithme.com - the faster his captives will die. Given the hideous creativity of his methods - including a sulfuric acid bath and a barrage of heat lamps - it’s a wonder the server doesn’t crash in seconds.

Unfolding without tension or logic, Untraceable doesn’t miss a derivative beat, from the faux jeopardy of Jennifer’s cute daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) to the disgusting death of a friend and the gradual stalking of Jennifer herself (“Mummy, there’s a picture of our house on the computer!”). Manifesting boundless contempt for avid internet users, the film portrays them as ghoulish voyeurs who can’t get enough of live-streamed murder. But while our inability to turn away from the grisly fates of others is a sad fact of human nature - the film is not above invoking Daniel Pearl - and a legitimate subject for cinematic exploration, Untraceable is content to skim the exploitative surface and leave the philosophising for another day. Which would be fine if what’s left were even minimally engaging and not simply a pallid exercise in rote exposition.

One of our smartest and most talented actresses, Lane has given luminous performances in films like Unfaithful and A Walk on the Moon. Now 43 and over-the-hill by Hollywood standards, she’s being forced to abandon the romantic roles at which she excels for cheap thrillers and celibate-mom characters more interested in work than love. Her warm earthiness concealed beneath an unflattering uniform, Lane’s Jennifer is an asexual career woman who may provoke the hot glances of a handsome colleague (Billy Burke) but is never allowed to respond. If it were Nicholson or Clooney in the role, you can bet their libidos would be attended to as thoroughly as their suspects.

Disappointingly directed by Gregory Hoblit (Fracture, Primal Fear), Untraceable is a lazy genre movie that relies on character stupidity to further its recycled narrative. Luckily there’s more than enough of that to go around.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2008
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Untraceable packshot
A cyber crimes expert hunts a serial killer who posts videos of his murders on the internet.
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Anton Bitel **1/2

Director: Gregory Hoblit

Writer: Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, Allison Burnett

Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Lewis, Tyrone Giordano, Perla Haney-Jardine, Tim deZarn, Chris Cousins, Jesse Tyler Ferguson

Year: 2008

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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