Saturday, June 4, 2016

Untraceable (2008)

Director: Gregory Hoblit                                    Writers: Robert Fyvolent & Mark Brinker
Film Score: Christopher Young                         Cinematography: Anastas N. Michos
Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks and Mary Beth Hurt

One of the problems with technology based crime stories is that the technology itself goes obsolete so fast that it dates the film prematurely. One only has to think of Sandra Bullock in The Net, to understand. Fortunately, Untraceable was filmed deep into the first decade of the new millennium and so the issue isn’t quite as obvious. It’s there, but it can be overlooked. Though one of my causes is promoting films by Portland directors, this isn’t one of them. It’s simply a Hollywood project filmed in Portland, but that in itself was interesting enough to check it out. In many ways it’s a fairly derivative story, a serial killer who murders his victims online instead of the delayed gratification of reading about them in the newspapers or seeing them on the TV news. But it’s essentially the same idea. I was also drawn to the film by a couple of actors, Colin Hanks, who had a brief but memorable role in the HBO series, Band of Brothers, and one of my favorite actresses, Mary Beth Hurt. Billy Burke is a new face for me, since I don’t watch the Twilight films, but being born in Bellingham, Washington, he’s sort of a local. Director Gregory Hoblit, on the other hand, is a Hollywood veteran who began in television and has since moved on to helm some very good second-tier suspense films like Frequency and Primal Fear. And he does a solid job with this story as well, though as in all of his films the screenplay is the weakest link.

The film opens on a high-tech video lab, with an unidentified man setting up a scene at the bottom of what looks like basement stairs to trap a cat. The scene then cuts to a rain-drenched street in Portland, Oregon. FBI agent Diane Lane grabs her backpack and heads into the Federal Building, where all kinds of computer analysts are at work investigating cyber crimes. Colin Hanks is a fellow agent who gets her up to speed on a recent case, but at the same time she gets a note from the Portland police about another site they want her to look at. She goes to the website and sees the cat stuck to a strong adhesive and apparently is going to die there for entertainment. Lane lives with her mother, Mary Beth Hurt, and her daughter, Perla Haney-Jardine. She checks the website before she goes to bed and discovers that the cat is dead. The fact that the site is local is not, according to Lane, a coincidence, but the head of the division, Peter Gray Lewis, feels there are more important crimes to be investigating. Then, in the parking lot at a hockey game, a fan lured by the prospect of a cheap online ticket is Tasered and pulled into a van. When he suddenly appears on the site, things get serious. While the Bureau handles the tech side of the crime, Billy Burke is the Portland homicide detective who deals directly with the witnesses, in this case the wife of the hockey fan.

The software the killer is using bounces the IP address around to servers all over the world, so the Lane and Hanks have no idea how to trace him. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, from Modern Family before that show began, is arrested but he has an alibi, and before long another victim is captured and the killer is revealed as Joseph Cross. Ultimately it’s his local connections that allow the detectives to find a way in, especially after he comes after Lane and her family. It’s a strange role for Diane Lane because of the way she seems detached from everything, her work, her daughter, her mother, even the crime itself. She had so much fire in her belly in The Perfect Storm, and while there are personal reasons for her character in the film that might explain her behavior, it’s yet another reason the film is unable to live up to its potential. The movie is competently filmed by Hoblit and his cinematographer Anastas Michos, including an abundance of really nice overhead shots, but it’s the screenplay that keeps the film from rising anywhere above merely interesting. And there are some incredibly bad lines in it, mostly delivered by Hanks. One groaner has him talking about the hockey fan who is bleeding out onscreen when he says, “It’s too bad this guy wasn’t a Boy Scout, he could just bleed Morse code and tell us where he is.” Even though this is a plot point that comes up later, it seems incredibly insensitive in the moment. And then, when the hockey fan dies, Hanks shakes his head and says, looking at his computer screen, “It’s a jungle in there.”

The music by Christopher Young in the opening credits attempts to set the mood by replicating John Carpenter’s piano music from Halloween, but the score is pretty forgettable other than that. The color manipulation of the film is done to replicate a Hollywood version of a Pacific Northwest winter, and it looks pretty good. The streets are always wet and the cloud cover is an icy gray, with a blue-tinged palate in very sharp focus to represent the cold snap the city is having in the story. Most of the interiors were constructed in Clackamus, southeast of Portland, while the exteriors were filmed at iconic spots in the city. In assessing it overall it can’t really be called a bad film, because it does hold interest all the way through. But that’s about the best that can be said for it. The screenwriters seem as if they’re trying to generate a relationship between Buke and Lane, but that never really comes off. They also make Hanks out to be a sort of an oblivious FBI agent, which doesn’t really work either. The film received decidedly mixed reviews, which makes sense. There’s nothing really unique about the story, and the acting is only average, but ultimately Untraceable is watchable, with just enough to keep it interesting. Just make sure you watch it on cable TV rather than paying for the privilege.

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