Thursday, January 31, 2008

Untraceable: Unwatchable

Untraceable (2008) • View trailer
No stars (turkey). Rating: R, for profanity and excruciating, exploitative violence and torture
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.31.08

The trouble with culturing a disease is that the little buggers inevitably escape the petri dish.

Horror films are designed to be outrageous; they cater to a specific viewership that worships at the alter of torture-porn slime such as the Hostel and Saw series.

FBI cybercrime special agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane, center) and Portland
police detective Eric Box (Billy Burke, far right) watch in horror, along with
the rest of Marsh's colleagues, as another poor victim is tortured to death on a
Web site run by a tech-savvy Internet predator.
Indeed, it could be argued that horror films — like any other aspect of youth culture — aren't doing their job unless they offend and otherwise dismay mainstream society.

It's an entirely different matter, however, when such reprehensible garbage oozes from the fringe element and emerges with a deceptive outer layer of respectable clothing, designed specifically to entice the unwary.

In the case of Untraceable, the respectable clothing is worn by star Diane Lane, a veteran actress with a long list of credits stretching back to The Outsiders and The Cotton Club, who more recently copped an Oscar nomination for Unfaithful and indulged her romantic side in Under the Tuscan Sun.

Her presence here adds bogus legitimacy to an otherwise worthless piece of trash from a director — Gregory Hoblit — determined to rub our noses in precisely the sort of ghastly, grisly mayhem that has become de rigueur in horror flicks such as those cited above.

To call Untraceable tasteless is the worst of understatements.

Mainstream cop thrillers should be able to survive on tension and character development, and in fairness scripter Robert Fyvolent tries to get some juice going between FBI cybercrime special agent Jennifer Marsh (Lane) and police detective Eric Box (Billy Burke, wholly unmemorable). But Lane and Burke have zero chemistry ... or maybe it's just that Hoblit couldn't be bothered to encourage them to create any.

The story is a sadistic blend of cyber wizardry and old-fashioned mechanical torture. A deranged wing nut — Joseph Cross, as Owen Reilly — sets up a Web site with streaming video of an escalating series of murders-in-progress.

He starts with a kitten but quickly escalates to people, and the gimmick is that the various death traps are controlled by the number of viewers who log into the site: The more lookie-loos, the faster the victim dies.

Naturally, Reilly has "protected" his site and its location with a series of fancy-shmancy nerd skills that baffle even Marsh and her colleagues at the FBI's cybercrime unit. They can't find him; they can't shut down the site. And because Fyvolent has such an optimistic view of humanity, each successive victim is snuffed faster, because word has spread and ever more curious idiots log in to check it out ... many of them posting messages along the lines of "way cool, dude" in the accompanying chat window.

OK, I'm willing to believe that an appropriately cynical commentary could be made about the less than palatable habits of many Internet voyeurs; the degree to which real-world law enforcement agencies must deal with cyber predators is proof enough that a serious problem exists.

And yes, in theory, this is a grisly but quite reasonable fantasy concept on which to hang a cop thriller.

But Hoblit tips his hand as he lovingly lingers on and exploits the screaming pain of each new victim. My personal favorites are the poor guy slowly fried beneath a battery of heat lamps, his skin blistering and popping as the rising Web site hits switch on more and more bulbs; and the guy who slowly perishes in a tank of water, as chemical additives turn the liquid into battery acid, and we watch the flesh peel away from his exposed limbs.

Yum, yum.

Point being, Hoblit doesn't give a tinker's damn for whatever sociological implications might be present in Fyvolent's script; he just wants to gross us out. Which he does, and repeatedly.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that the kitten perishes off-camera.

Hoblit also doesn't waste his time trying to create suspense; we're introduced to the demented Owen Reilly pretty early on, so there's no chance of trying to "solve" the case. The motives for Owen's behavior — and choice of victims — are pretty oblique, as well, despite the obligatory dumb scene at FBI headquarters, where Marsh and Box listen to a profiler insist that "there's always a reason."

And you have to laugh during the early scenes, as Marsh and her FBI colleague, Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, working hard with little material), exchange an endless stream of techno-babble that would have been right at home on any Star Trek episode.

Jargon overload is the first refuge of lazy writers hoping to impress viewers by snowing them.

I ain't impressed.

Jennifer, a single mother, lives in a cheerful Portland, Ore., home with her 8-year-old daughter, Annie (Perla Haney-Jardine, reasonably cute), and mother, Stella (Mary Beth Hurt, a blank slate). Rather than actually talking to each other, during the course of this movie Jennifer and Stella exchange numerous pregnant glances, all apparently intended to convey ... something. Stella's disapproval of her daughter's chosen profession? Jennifer's desire to date more?

Indigestion-fueled gas after eating too many vegetables the night before?

Who knows? Who cares?

If Fyvolent and Hoblit can't be bothered to elaborate, why should we waste time wondering?

Those who enjoy Portland will appreciate the coverage given this attractive city; location manager Jennifer Dunne and cinematographer Anastas Michos insert many shots of the Rose Quarter, the Pearl District and the Broadway Bridge over the Willamette River. Having spent a fair amount of time in Portland, I can report that checking out the scenery was virtually the only joy I derived from this otherwise worthless flick.

Lane should be ashamed. She's better than this.

Fyvolent and Hoblit?

I'm not so sure.

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