Judge Christopher Kulik used to be untraceable, until he was discovered surfing the Internet for paper and rulers.
Our review of Untraceable (Blu-Ray), published May 15th, 2008, is also available.
How do you stop a killer who can get to you virtually anywhere?
The Amazon.com plot synopsis amusingly refers to Untraceable as a cross between The Net and Saw…and that pretty much sums it up. Released quietly in January, the film only made $28 million at the box office. The film is now available on DVD courtesy of Sony, though is it really much more than another serial killer thriller?
Facts of the Case
Special FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane, Must Love Dogs) works for a cybercrime unit in rainy Portland, Oregon. With the assistance of her younger partner, Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, Orange County), their mission is to track down and capture criminals who use the Internet to carry out their evil deeds. Their newest case turns out to be the most disturbing they have ever encountered: a serial killer (played by Joseph Cross, Flags Of Our Fathers) is torturing victims on the Internet, then using a live feed where the more hits his site gets, the quicker they will die. Even though they discover the killer is a local resident, finding him turns out to be easier said than done, considering the fact he is "untraceable."
(Non-Spoiler footnote: the killer is revealed early on, though his motives remain unknown until later in the film.)
All thrillers nowadays—particularly ones dealing with serial killers—seem to have fallen prey to a predictable pattern. The killer is insane, the spree is started, the authorities begin to investigate, clues begin to surface as to the killer's identity and location, the hero begins to lose patience and experience fear, the villain gets more serious and crafty, etc., etc. And, of course, they are incomplete without a final showdown between the hero and the villain. Untraceable mostly, if modestly, remains faithful to that template, as it yields few surprises.
The idea of a serial killer using the Internet to conduct acts of torture is admittedly intriguing, though it stretches believability a bit too much. For one thing, it emphasizes the killer as being much more intelligent and tech-savvy than an entire FBI unit. As a matter of fact, Untraceable makes the killer more than a mastermind, but a literal super-genius…and he's only 20 years old! Naturally, the film doesn't bother to explain how he got so smart, where he gets his funds, or what his true motivations are when it eventually comes to toying with the FBI.
Diane Lane undeniably gives Untraceable some star quality. While it's nice to see her in a change-of-pace role—as opposed to her recent romantic comedy excursions—the talented actress isn't given enough range here to expand that talent. We do understand her frustration over her boss' lack of assistance and her pain over losing her husband (also an agent) over a year ago, but these are not enough for us to really sympathize with her character. It's certainly not a bad performance, but she seems out of place, simply going through the motions of being shocked half the time and driven to find the killer the other half.
The other actors don't offer any real credibility, either. Colin Hanks is given the standard partner role and fails to enliven it any way. Billy Burke, as a police detective who joins forces with Lane later in the film, is dull and unappealing. Even the usually flamboyant Mary Beth Hurt feels underused here. Joseph Cross is occasionally effective as the killer, however.
On top of all that, the script (by first-timers Robert Fyvolent & Mark R. Brinker, along with Alison Burnett) lacks punch. The cyber techno babble will whisk over viewers' heads and, to be honest, it sounds like nothing we haven't heard before after watching 40 years of Star Trek. Much of the dialogue is obvious ("I have a theory as to who is behind all this…"), meaning that it indicates the speaking character will soon meet his/her demise. Humor is understandably kept to a minimum, though a bit more cleverness could have been injected into the writing. In short, there is not much here to make Untraceable rise above average.
Sony's visual presentation is surprisingly disappointing. The 2.40 Anamorphic widescreen print has lots of gloomy colors and several instances of too-strong blacks. Some debris was detected, though no edge enhancement. Things are better on the audio side, with three satisfactory 5.1 surround tracks and a Spanish dub in stereo. Subtitles are also provided in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I mentioned before about the script lacking punch. However, the story itself is solid and credible, coincidences and contrivances aside. The film never veers off into unnecessary subplots, but remains focused on the hunt for the killer. For example, there is a slight possibility of a romantic alliance between Lane and Burke; thankfully, it doesn't get consummated because it would have just cluttered the narrative. Once Untraceable sets up the killer and his mission, the focus remains on those elements and nothing else. The pace of the film is smooth as glass and, as long as you don't think about it too much afterward, tension is generated.
As a result, Untraceable is, at least, not boring. Much of the credit goes to Gregory Hoblit (who helmed one of my favorite thrillers, Primal Fear) for directing the film with style, using imaginative camera angles throughout. He doesn't attempt to pull tricks on the audience; he simply goes out to tell the story. Many thrillers seem to have the tendency to go overboard with flourishes and indulgences, but Hoblit manages to remain cool and confident.
While the audio/visual quality didn't rock my boat, the extras certainly did. The commentary track by Hoblit, producer Hawk Koch, and production designer Paul Eads was highly entertaining and quite informative. Like the film itself, the commentary did keep my attention, with enough input provided by all three individuals to make it worth a listen. Also on the bonus front are four featurettes, all of which serve their purpose and thus are worth jumping into. The first, "Tracking Untraceable," takes the viewer behind the scenes, and "The Personnel Files" is a cast and crew overview. Next up is "The Blueprint of Murder," which covers the making of Untraceable and finally, there is the fascinating "The Anatomy of Murder," focusing on the special make-up effects employed.
One more item in the film's favor is the music score. Christopher Young (Spider-Man 3), provides an appropriately eerie melody that manages to enhance the suspense. In addition, it isn't overpowering, but remains effectively subtle.
While Untraceable is thoroughly conventional and unconvincing (at times), it's at least worthy enough of a rental. The story, music, and direction have enough juice to keep your attention, even if the screenplay and performances fall short of their potential.
The court finds Sony and the film guilty of unoriginality, though both are free to go for providing just enough virtues as compensation.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Gregory Hoblit, Producer Hawk Koch, and Production Designer Paul Eads
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