'Untraceable': Snared In Its Own Sordid Trap

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

Diane Lane may be the single best reason for adults to keep going to movies these days, embodying not only the glamour and sexiness of an old-school movie star but also, somehow, the mellow, slightly careworn seasoning of an ordinary middle-aged woman.

Those qualities are very much intact in "Untraceable," in which Lane plays a cyber-crime expert with the FBI, which makes her presence in the film all the more painful. An otherwise slick, well-crafted police procedural, "Untraceable" dabbles in the kind of torture porn that has made movies like "Saw" and "Hostel" such hit franchises with the very teenagers Lane's career has so triumphantly defied.

There are two movies to talk about in "Untraceable," one of which is very good. That one stars Lane as Jennifer Marsh, a widowed federal agent living in Portland, Ore., with her mother (Mary Beth Hurt) and 8-year-old daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine). She works nights so she can spend more time with her daughter, and also because that's when her cyber-criminal quarries seem to be most active. She and her cheerfully geeky colleagues bait and trap pornographers, pedophiles and fraudsters with the high-fiving enthusiasm of kids playing Super Mario Bros.

Director Gregory Hoblit populates "Untraceable" with a terrific supporting cast of fresh faces, including the hugely appealing Colin Hanks as Jennifer's best friend and sidekick, Griffin, and Billy Burke as a Portland police detective with whom she shares a frisson of attraction. The entire production is skillfully and tastefully executed, with Portland providing a refreshing visual backdrop and the action -- which could have amounted to a stultifying montage of computer-screen close-ups -- moving along at a crisp, engaging clip. With its dialogue laden with references to Evites, TTLs, IPs and botnets, and its spot-on depiction of the boneheaded "comments" that pass for discourse on the Web, Hoblit provides a vivid atmospheric portrait of a contemporary media culture whose greatest literary achievement is "LOL."

But from its very first scene (let's just say there's a kitten involved), "Untraceable" isn't the sophisticated, brainy thriller it so nearly could have been, but just another movie about a serial murderer, in this case a deranged computer whiz who kidnaps people, drags them to a basement and then tortures them, uploading the images to a Web site called "Kill With Me?" The more people who log on, the faster the victim dies, whether by bleeding to death, being burned while encased in cement or dunked in a vat of battery acid.

These gruesome, graphic images, which Hoblit splices into "Untraceable" just often enough to provide what studios once called "wammies," provide a sick, even depraved counterpoint to the relatively classy production going on around them, and the filmmakers' intent is clear: to indict a culture drunk on images and desensitized to their meanings. (Lane's character pointedly compares the fans of "Kill With Me?" to the people who logged on to watch the video of Daniel Pearl being murdered.)

As "Untraceable" descends into progressively more perverted territory -- and as Jennifer becomes personally more endangered by the sicko's hacking expertise -- it begins to practice the very hypocrisy it condemns, engaging in the rancid voyeurism it pretends to abhor. The final showdown is the kind of preposterous Hollywood cliche that would be right at home in Robert Altman's classic satire "The Player." Through it all, Lane hits her marks with signature insight and professionalism, which only proves that she deserves much better than this grim, grisly, joyless production.

Untraceable (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some prolonged sequences of strong gruesome violence and profanity.

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