Cinema | Net Zero, Psychos Won: Untraceable pretends to comment on “torture porn” while taking advantage of it 

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The original working title of Untraceable was Streaming Evil—which has precisely the right amount of built-in schlock for the tedious bit of horror exploitation this is. You can imagine something titled Streaming Evil starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, or perhaps Jessica Alba, as FBI agent Jennifer Marsh, a dedicated worker in the cyber-crimes unit and a chipper single mom on the side, all the better for creating jeopardy situations (Oh no! A child in danger! And only her mom can save her!). You could even cast a no-name actress and throw it up on USA Network on a Saturday night when no one’s watching anyway.

But something happened along the way. Gellar was busy, perhaps, or Alba passed, and someone had the frantic brainstorm to aim higher. And poor Diane Lane—who figured she’d better take this job, because nothing truly worthy of her steely talent and electric screen presence was likely to come along and, well, crap, the mortgage still has to be paid—was on board. But Streaming Evil wouldn’t do for a Diane Lane movie. She’s a grownup, and deserves, at the very least, a grownup title for her movie. Untraceable may be a generically bland title, but it sounds just a wee bit more intellectual than Streaming Evil.

So here we are, with a flick that isn’t “torture porn,” oh no. It’s condemning torture porn. Of course, it has to engage in a little torture porn, or else how would we know what it’s got its ire up about? This flick desperately wants to remind you of The Silence of the Lambs and its whip-smart, way-cool, fearless-under-pressure female FBI agent yet gives its incarnation here little to do beyond tap on computer keyboards and fret in a maternal way about her daughter and the younger FBI agents under her.

Some sicko is killing people live on the Internet, streaming you-are-there video of his poor-sap victims being tormented in evilly ingenious ways that speed up the pain and suffering the more people tune in. An intravenous drug drips faster as more surfers click onto the sicko’s site, KillWithMe.com, that kind of thing. And, of course, Lane’s Jennifer Marsh is on the job, trying to run the killer down before he kills again, and so publicly.

Fair warning: The first victim is a kitten, and while the scene isn’t graphic, it is very disturbing. The scenes of the human victims are also deeply gruesome, but there’s something about a helpless actor-kitty and its inability to consent to even pretend movie torture that is deeply distressing.

I’d like to say that that was part of the point of Untraceable, that it wants us to examine our own reaction to the violence and degradation onscreen. But it undercuts itself through the killer’s final gambit for Internet fame by attempting to condemn us for finding its admittedly well-produced action-with-deadly-stakes enthralling, if only momentarily. And, meanwhile, the filmmakers are making Untraceable’s admittedly well-produced action-with-deadly-stakes enthralling, if only momentarily.

What makes Untraceable so frustrating is that it is not instantly dismissible as yet another mindless indulgence in pandering to an audience’s basest instincts for blood and gore. Though the killer’s identity is hidden at the outset, and the film seems to be setting itself up as one of those boring exercises in “guess which character you know and like is secretly the killer,” that’s not how it plays out. There are hints of deeper commentary on the psychosis our entire culture seems to be suffering from—not just in the widespread enjoyment of torture-porn movies but also in our unthinking willingness to put ourselves under constant surveillance, as with our vehicular GPSes and OnStar subscriptions.

But the three credited screenwriters—Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker and Allison Burnett, only one of whom (Burnett) has a prior credit—can’t figure out what to do with what they have. They end up smacking us with faux-deep philosophy, like Jennifer’s horrible line: “I’m good at a lot of things, but I’m no good at losing people. I’m bad at losing people.” Come on! Is anyone “good” at losing people?

Director Gregory Hoblit has given us pseudo-high-minded junk like last year’s Fracture and the cheesy dick-flick Frequency, but also the satisfying B-movie pulp of Hart’s War. I would have settled for satisfying B-movie pulp again here, too. Too bad that Untraceable can’t even manage anything more than a would-be highbrow sheen on the lowest reaches of modern cinema.

UNTRACEABLE

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Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks
Rated R

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MaryAnn Johanson

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