Leaping through skylights and surfing down stairs, Taylor Lautner and his parkour crew elevate old-fashioned cat burglary to a feat of high-speed, anti-gravity showmanship in “Tracers,” a project that takes what’s anarchic about the sport and runs, jumps and double-somersaults with it. The plot may be as creaky as an old-timer slinking across rooftops in a black turtleneck and domino mask, but the acrobatic stunts more than compensate, many of them performed by Lautner himself. After 2011’s “Abduction” cast his drawing power into question, this youth-skewing, VOD-driven release could be the “Twilight” star’s last gleaming.
Perhaps that’s overstating the stakes, as it’s only Lautner’s short-lived A-list standing that appears to be in question. Although Team Jacob fans managed to sway “Twilight” producers from recasting his role in the sequels, they haven’t turned out in sufficient numbers to carry the teen wolf into a grown-up career, whereas co-stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart (who just won a Cesar) have since become regulars at Cannes.
Shot on the streets of New York in summer 2013, director Daniel Benmayor’s fleet-footed thriller curiously took its time reaching screens, outlasting the reported offscreen romance between its two leads — Lautner and Marie Avgeropoulos — before finally opening in France and via an exclusive deal with DirecTV weeks ahead of its Saban Films-backed domestic bow. If marketed correctly (no small feat for the relatively inexperienced distrib behind Hilary Swank starrer “The Homesman”), there’s no reason it couldn’t top the $20 million gross of Sony’s “Premium Rush.”
Conceived in the same B-movie mold, “Tracers” centers on a daredevil bike messenger, this one named Cam (Lautner), who depends on his quick wit and nimble agility to outmaneuver a group of heavily armed criminals. After a run-in with a mysterious “traceur” (as parkour practitioners are called) derails a delivery, leaving his bike totaled and his mind unable to think of anything else — not even the $15,000 he inexplicably owes Chinatown’s most unforgiving gang boss — Cam scours the parks to find the girl who knocked him off his feet.
When Cam does locate her, the nearly feral Nikki (Avgeropoulos) races up a cherry picker, propels herself across a parking-garage roof and disappears into thin air — the sort of demonstration, typically limited to street-dance movies and high-school musicals, sure to leave any lad smitten. An orphan with nothing to remember his parents by but his dad’s broken-down muscle car, Cam forgets his debts and focuses on learning parkour. From the looks of it, Lautner did the same, flaunting moves few actors his age could manage — which nearly compensates for the absent, glassy-eyed blankness he brings to the pic’s emotional scenes.
Nikki belongs to an unusual surrogate family, mostly runaways shepherded by a shady adoptive father named Miller (Adam Rayner). Cam wants in, first as an excuse to get close to this wild spirit, but also because he senses that there’s serious money to be made doing Miller’s bidding. Like him, the gang makes deliveries, only in their case, the loot is illicit and the missions off the books, like breaking into a police warehouse and stealing evidence — the sort of assignment that might have taken place in agonizing slow-motion for maximum suspense in a classic heist movie, ratcheted up here to breakneck speed.
On one hand, it seems perfectly reasonable that a criminal mastermind might seek out such acrobats to do his bidding. That said, it’s not terribly practical for them to go vaulting about like a bunch of over-caffeinated sugar gliders. Sure, it’s cinematic, but it also seems a near-certain way to get caught, which might explain why their missions are constantly going awry, forcing Cam and his cohorts to flee at top speed, while men with guns chase them up stairs, down fire escapes and across obstacle-course rooftops.
If you think the stunt work is impressive, it’s worth considering what the limber camera crew had to accomplish in order for the handheld rig to keep up. Credit d.p. Nelson Cragg and the second-unit crew with the film’s restless, immersive involvement in the action, whether circling Cam and Nikki at a rave or mirroring the characters’ most daunting tricks. So while Lautner is to be admired for his physical commitment to the role, the below-the-line team lighting, shooting and choreographing his moves deserves equal credit. The film wouldn’t have worked without such a versatile team, which otherwise operates without a trace.