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Untraceable Print E-mail
Friday, 01 August 2008
Image“Untraceable” is a tough, even brutal police thriller set (and filmed) in rainy Portland, Oregon.  The story centers on FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), who investigates cyber-crime with her younger partner Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, son of Tom).  She lives with her young daughter Annie Haskins (Perla Haney-Jardine) and her own mother Stella (Mary Beth Hurt).  Her husband, also an FBI agent, died some time ago; Jennifer is tough and dedicated to her job.  We see her and Dowd briskly track down one criminal, but soon they’re confronted with a sadistic murderer with a specific agenda.

They come across a website called  The technical savvy webmaster keeps his identity hidden, but not his plans: he kills a kitten on screen (but not, fortunately, on the screen we’re watching), and announces his plans to keep this up.  But he immediately escalates to human beings.  He starts a captive’s blood draining; the more hits gets, the more anticoagulant feeds into the bound man’s bloodstream—and the faster he dies.  People do log on, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds, and the man dies.

Then the killer captures someone else, sets up a different means of death, and again—the more hits, the faster the victim dies.

One of the cleverest, if rather insidious, ideas behind the movie is that under these circumstances, becomes the hottest thing on the internet.  People flood the system by the thousands, heading for the millions.  We occasionally get glimpses of the short messages they post to the site’s bulletin board, and they’re all too real.  Some beg the guy to stop, but most are eager to see more and more deaths.  It’s hideous to think that there are people out there who would watch this kind of thing, much less watch it avidly and eagerly—but we all know that cyberspace is populated by a lot of twisted minds.  The more self-reflexive of us perhaps even suspect that we ourselves would log on…. Working with Portland police detective Eric Box, Marsh bears down on the attempt to trace the killer, whose cyber-tracks are well hidden.  So she, Box and Dowd have to go back to more old-fashioned techniques: have the victims been chosen at random (as it first seems), or are they connected somehow.  And if so, what’s behind that connection?

The screenplay by Robert Fyvolent & Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett is cleverly developed.  The characters are mostly convincing, even when the situations tend to stretch credibility a bit.  How does the killer set up each new victim so quickly?  How does he pay for his activities, which can’t be cheap?  For the most part, director Gregory Hoblit deftly evades those snares, but can’t keep from including a scene in which smart, efficient Jennifer Marsh does something incredibly dumb (on a rainy bridge); this is to keep the plot percolating, but it’s hard to swallow.

The film is several steps more grisly and brutal than police thrillers usually are, edging up to realistic gore almost in the “Saw” arena.  It’s not quite a horror movie, but it’s too grim for most kids under 12 (and for a lot of adults over 40).  One of the killer’s captives is immersed up to his neck in a tank of water; he’s chained to a chair.  Chemicals feeding into the tank gradually turn the fluid into battery acid, and we see the screaming victim’s skin start to dissolve and slough off.  This is ingenious, but it’s hard to watch, especially since we like the tortured character.

Hoblit makes excellent use of Portland locations.  The Oregon city is highly photogenic, and has been at least a partial setting for several films recently, including “Mr. North.”  But that was shot mostly in Shreveport, LA, playing the part of Portland.  “Untraceable” is unmistakably set and shot in Portland; it’s a distinctive and photogenic city, with a broad river running through it, lots of bridges and Mt. Hood gleaming in the background.

Hoblit occasionally uses moving cameras very effectively.  In one scene, cinematographer Anastas Michos boldly places the camera near the ceiling of an office, then moves it laterally over the characters’ heads.  It’s bravura but not so attention-grabbing that you lose track of what’s going on in the scene.  The occasional hand-held shots usually indicate we’re watching the scene from the point of view of the killer, but this doesn’t seem consistent.

Diane Lane is terrific, but she’s been terrific ever since she began in movies as a child actor.  She’s completely believable as an FBI agent, as a daughter and as a concerned mother.  There are traces of a romance between her character and Burke’s, but they don’t get in the way of the story.  Colin Hanks is very likeable, even charming, as her somewhat nerdish partner, and Joseph Cross a standout as the killer, who’s anything but likeable.

This is a handsome, well-shot and –designed movie, but it isn’t a high definition showcase.  It looks great on this Blu-ray disc, but standard-definition videos, I’m sure, look about as good.  If you’re considering this, the extra cost of the Blu-ray disc might not really be worth it.

There’s nothing special about the featurettes; the four add up to a standard making-of presentation, a bit more detailed than most.  Among those appearing in these are writers Mark Brinker and Robert Fyvolent (who came up with the original story), producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi, and final writer Allison Burnett (a male Allison).  Actors Lane, Burke, Hanks and Hurt also turn up.  One featurette focuses on the special effects, which are excellent: it’s a surprise to see how many dummies were used.

The commentary track by Hoblit, the wonderfully-named Hawk Koch and production designer Eads is informative, but not essential.

“Untraceable” is a sharp, intelligent crime thriller, more gruesome than most, with a few logical missteps along the way.  But overall, it’s just what it should be.

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