Unfolding like a better-than-average episode of a first-rate TV police procedural, “Untraceable” is a satisfying slice of solidly crafted meat-and-potatoes filmmaking. Diane Lane heads a cast of thoroughgoing professionals who breathe a fair degree of fresh life into stock characters, and the formulaic plot is enlivened with bracingly acerbic observations about Internet-enabled voyeurism. Aggressive marketing — and a fortuitous lack of similar product in the marketplace — may enable this latest thriller from helmer Gregory Hoblit ( “Fracture,””Primal Fear”) to draw genre fans to megaplexes before pic begins a long life on vidstore shelves and cable network playlists.
Working from a script credited to Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett, Hoblit (whose early experience as a director on “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” serves him well here) focuses on the crime-busting activities of an FBI cybercrimes unit in the bureau’s Portland, Ore., field office. Usually, special agents Jennifer Marsh (Lane), a widowed single mother, and Griffith Dowd (Colin Hanks), her younger, nerdier partner, set their sights on sexual predators and credit-card scammers. But the stakes are raised when they discover someone on the Web has developed an attention-grabbing killer app.
The anonymous psycho behind killwithme.com starts out small, trapping a kitten and promising to kill the cat once his “untraceable” site gets a sufficient number of hits. When the maniac Webmaster makes good on his promise, Marsh assumes it’s only a matter of time before human victims are placed at risk in live downstreaming videos. And sure enough, the psycho lives down to her worst expectations, rigging torture devices that grow increasing painful, and eventually lethal, as millions of voyeurs worldwide click on to watch the real-time action.
Alert auds will note just how rigorously Hoblit and his scripters adhere to the law of Chekhov’s gun: If you introduce a firearm in the first act, you must use it in the third. While watching a victim writhing in agony on killwithme.com, someone notes that it would be great if said victim could blink Morse code directions to his whereabouts — suffice it to say that blinking then figures into the plot in a way of which Chekhov would approve.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers shoot themselves in the foot and leave a gaping hole in their narrative by not revealing the ultimate fates of two key characters during their otherwise effective wrap-up.
Given the serial killer’s ingeniously grisly means of dispatching his captives — acid baths, megawatt sun-lamps, etc. — and the prevailing atmosphere of impending doom in a rainy Pacific Northwest setting, “Untraceable” cannot help but invite comparisons to “Seven.” New pic is hardly in the same league as David Fincher’s influential thriller, but it does keep the aud consistently discomforted — in all the right ways — while sustaining interest and maintaining suspense.
Lane strikes the perfect balance of resourcefulness and sensitivity in a quietly forceful performance that efficiently propels the action. Billy Burke lends strong support as a Portland cop who aids in the investigation — wisely, the filmmakers avoid the obvious while developing his relationship with Marsh — while Joseph Cross is both oddly compelling and formidably creepy as the Webmaster from hell. Other standouts in the supporting cast include Mary Beth Hurt as Marsh’s mom, Perla Haney-Jardine as Marsh’s young daughter, and Hanks as the FBI agent who goes looking for love in all the wrong places.
Credit lenser Anastas Michos for making Portland look and feel like a moody, gloomy place where the worst things can happen at any moment. Other tech credits are pro.