There seems few limits to what the FBI gets to do in movies to bring in criminals: surfing (Point Break); street-racing (The Fast and the Furious); reptile wrangling (Snakes on a Plane); and, of course, that old standby, playing mouse to the super-smart psycho-killer cat (Silence of the Lambs). So now we have Untraceable, which like Silence, follows a nervy female FBI agent as she matches wits with a brilliant murdering madman.
Portland FBI-er Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a desk jockey, tasked with cruising the Web's nefarious corners. With impressive speed, she logs on to multiple computers, spewing lots of convincing techno-babble about mirrors and 'bots, all while cracking wise with her partner Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks). We goggle as it takes about two minutes -- from online log-in to a tactical team kicking in a door -- to bust an Internet identity thief. (I'm just asking: How's that search for bin Laden coming along?)
Unbeknownst to Marsh -- but director Gregory Hoblit kindly lets us watch -- a new Web site is being birthed in Ye Olde Creepy Dark Cluttered Basement. It's called KillWithMe, and its obscured creator hits "enter," enabling streaming live video of a mewling tortured kitten to beam out to all the sick voyeurs across the Internets.
And it just gets worse from there, as Mr. KillWithMe quickly moves on to torturing and killing seemingly random Portlanders -- and surprise! FBI agents -- on his live-action Web site. (Though, hands down, the imperiled kitten drew the most outraged response from the screening audience). And for maximum shock, our genius-sicko-Webmaster has linked his murder apparatus to his site counter, so the more lookee-loos who log on, the faster the victim dies. See? We're all killers, too!
OK, so the Internet may make some forms of detached participation easier, but it's not exactly breaking news that human nature has an unpleasant side that enjoys watching bad things happen to other people. After all, the Romans didn't publicly throw problem citizens to the lions just to save on cat food.
And I don't know what to make of Hoblit's grisly Saw-style murder scenes vis-à-vis the film's moralizing. One guy slowly bleeds to death with "KillWithMe" carved into his chest like a twisted variation on those ubiquitous GoldenPalace.com body ads.
Yet, Untraceable is trying to make an obvious critique about folks who choose to watch death-porn online, even as it forces us -- unwilling, trapped viewers -- to watch a guy peel to death in vat of battery acid. Strictly for our entertainment and to satisfy those very same voyeuristic urges, Hoblit is exploiting cinema's capacity to depict realistic torture and killing. Maybe we're sick to watch, but Hoblit's sicker for presuming we'd want to watch what amounts to already passé torture-porn gussied up as a respectable thriller.
The only remotely decent thing about this rote, icky thriller is Lane, who manages to make her character appear competent, even as the plot collapses around her. Hopefully, if there's a sequel, Marsh will get transferred to an easier, less bloody beat, like Web surfing. Oh, wait ...