Once “Unfaithful” but sexy, Diane Lane has unfortunately turned to making uninteresting, unoriginal films like “Untraceable.”
Jennifer Marsh (Lane) is a widowed FBI cyber agent who leads the action in “Untraceable,” Hollywood’s latest techno-thriller. The movie, though ostensibly set in Portland, takes place in the very dark but very public corners of the online world. The idea, of course, is that moving a predictable killer-versus-cop plot into this online world will add a new, 21st-century element to the genre. Replace shady back alleys with unknown IP addresses, guns with spyware — and you’ve got a totally original concept, right?
Not exactly. Though everything in “Untraceable” is cast in an eerie, computer-blue glow, and technical jargon clogs the movie’s dialogue, an entirely recognizable formula persists. Plucky female protagonist, creepy bad guy, doofus cop — the gang’s all here. It’s not so difficult to guess who will be left standing by the end. Try as it might, the plot can’t tear itself away from conventions, nor the characters from stereotypes.
The bad guy this time around is Owen Reilly (Joseph Cross), pale-faced, sharp-chinned and beady-eyed. He has a computer chip on his shoulder and seeks vengeance for these prior wrongs in a reciprocally high-tech fashion. The cat-and-mouse game FBI agents play with him forces Marsh and partner Griffin Dowd (a lovable Colin Hanks) to use similar methods; almost all crime in “Untraceable” is displayed and combated on computer screens. Other actions are framed in a corresponding fashion. During the opening credits, we hear the homey sounds of shuffling footsteps and a meowing kitten, but we see the kitten on a camcorder display. People appear through windows and camera lenses, in mirrors and on pixilated screens; even Marsh and Dowd, with physical desks directly opposite one another, use their souped-up PCs to communicate.
This leaves us with the uncomfortable awareness of technology’s ability to fragment, alienate and piss off — a point “Untraceable” clearly tries to drive home. The central event in the movie plays out like some twisted, morbid version of “American Idol”: the more people who log on to KillWithMe.com, the faster Reilly’s latest victim dies. Reilly simply exploits the mob’s fascination with violence and spectacle to fuel the death of his hostages.
The real villain in “Untraceable,” then, is the Internet. An interesting enough concept, but the movie wants to make sure we know just how villainous it is. The Web may hit us over the head with images and information, but “Untraceable” delivers a similar deluge by slapping us silly with cliched metaphor after cliched metaphor. The message is loud, clear and annoying: “Look! Innovation has its downsides, too!” The symbolism is completely transparent; when Marsh’s daughter Annie (Perla Janey-Hardine) receives an equestrian-themed computer game for her birthday, we immediately realize it to be (what the techies call) a backdoor Trojan-horse program. Marsh alluded to this type of spyware a few minutes before, but audiences are smarter than the director thinks and make the connection easily.
The actors don’t fill their roles with much gusto or energy, so trite and overused lines are inserted to pick up the slack. Detective Eric Box (Billy Burke) is the worst offender; he uses the phrase “piece of shit” in reference to Reilly at least three times, none of which convince us of Reilly’s piece-of-shittiness. FBI agents spout bravado and hot air. Marsh is a tough broad with shifty eyes who doesn’t want to get involved until it “gets personal.” Setting and cinematography don’t do anything to alleviate this plague of the formulaic; one of the climactic scenes takes places during a thunderstorm. I’m not kidding.
But a few surprising, subtler moments do puncture the predictability. There is an elegant contrast between shots of Marsh mechanically banging away at her computer while her earthy, grounded mother digs in the garden. The movie is a cat-and-mouse game, but the aforementioned kitten from the movie’s opening meets its demise while caught in a rat trap.
Little Janey-Hardine is cute and has attitude (she rolls her eyes and reminds her mother to send out e-vites for her birthday party), but not as cute as when she stomped on fish and ate crustless sandwiches in “Kill Bill 2.” Nor does Lane smolder like she did in “Unfaithful.” Nor is Hanks as funny as he was in, well, “Orange County.” It is a collection of half-hearted performances by very talented actors.
“Untraceable” will, like even the dullest of thrillers, elevate heart rate and produce goosebumps, on occasion. The ending is predictable — but then again, one can predict the endings of even the best of thrillers. It is, in this genre, never so much about the destination as it is about the cleverness of the journey. Unfortunately, this journey is cliched, contrived and just plain crappy.