Monday, May 19, 2008

Untraceable

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Starring: Diane Lane, Colin Hanks, Billy Burke, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt

Running Time: 101 min.

Rating: R


*1/2 (out of ****)


What a terrible film. I mean truly awful. Untraceable is the rare suspense/thriller that gets everything wrong. I should have seen it coming. The red flags were there. The big tip off should was seeing director Gregory Hoblit’s name on the credits. You may have heard of him, or if you’re lucky, you may not have. For years he’s been turning out forgettable, made for TV style thrillers hovering around C+ to B- level quality. His last effort was the hilariously over-the-top Fracture starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. Remember that one? Hopkins doesn’t. In a recent interview he couldn’t even remember the title of the film (and I can’t say I blame him).

Hoblit’s only lasting contribution to cinema was introducing the world to Edward Norton and directing him to an Oscar nomination for 1996’s legal thriller Primal Fear. Looking at the career trajectories of each since then, it’s become painfully obvious who the true architect behind that brilliant performance was. Whenever an actor signs up for a Hoblit picture it’s a foregone conclusion they’re just doing it for a paycheck…and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone has to pay the bills… even big movie stars. Even the ultra-talented Diane Lane. With Untraceable, Hoblit has finally made the movie I feared he would his entire career. Not one that toils in mediocrity like all his others, but something that is genuinely bad. I knew he had it in him. I’m just surprised it took this long. It’s The Condemned meets Saw, except it’ll be viewers who will feel as if they’ve been condemned sitting through a mess like this.


FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Lane) and her partner Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks) are members of Portland’s cybercrime unit where they investigate a website (appropriately titled “killwithme.com”) with a streaming video featuring the slow starvation of a small kitten. That’s strike one against the film already as few things bother me more than seeing the torture or implied torture of animals on screen (and this is coming from someone who’s never had a pet in his life). The scene isn’t really graphic but what it suggests is disturbing enough.. The webmaster then steps up his game a little and graduates to human subjects, torturing his victims in Saw-like contraptions with the time and speed of their death dependent on how many hits the site gets. And wouldn’t you know, the site is…UNTRACEABLE. This brings in local cop Eric Box (Billy Burke) whose character is even more boring then his name implies. He’s clearly being set up as a potential love interest for Jennifer but thankfully the film doesn’t fully go there. That’s a relief because Burke has as much presence as a dishrag. The corpses left in the perpetrator’s wake giving a more energetic performance than he does. It’s no surprise to anyone that at some point during the film things will start to “get personal” with Jennifer and the killer. It’s nearly a given that her family will be in danger and she’ll have to come to terms with her inner-demons, which include the recent tragic death of her husband. At least she isn’t a recovering alcoholic also.

Any thriller with a premise like this has pretty much surrendered itself to being of lackluster quality before the cameras even start to roll. But there were ways around it. The film could have gone one of two bad ways but unfortunately it went the wrong bad one. It could have been bad in a silly, entertaining way much like Fracture. I didn’t like that, but at least I was never bored and was thoroughly entertained by its awfulness. It knew how to have fun and the actors helped. Here, Hoblit isn’t given as goofy or endearing a script, which ends up being the film’s major undoing. It’s actually being presented as some kind of social commentary. On what? The evilness of the internet or that people like to watch each other get tortured and killed. That’s really deep.

I consider myself a fairly pessimistic person and have never seen a glass that I didn’t think looked half-empty, but even I have a tough time believing if the public found out that their participation caused people’s deaths they’d flood the site with hits. And assuming, out of curiosity, the site did see an increase in traffic (which it likely would) I seriously doubt it would occur to the point where victims would be killed in seconds as the hits just keep on coming. It was only done so Hoblit could film huge, dramatic death scenes. And of course we have to have the incompetent F.B.I. head honcho cluelessly hold a huge media press conference talking about the site so the deaths can speed up. The movie ends up promoting exactly what it’s trying to condemn with its depraved world view. You could actually envision teenagers leaving the film wanting to set up a website like this. That’s how out of their way the screenwriters and Hoblit go in trying to make it look cool.

Making matters worse is nearly every line of dialogue and development in the story you can see coming from miles away. A film like this really needs to be twist-laden to capture the viewer’s interest. Instead, most of the first half of the picture consists of characters typing away at their computers. There isn’t a single surprise to be found and they even give away the killer’s identity early for no apparent reason. It definitely isn’t to explain his motivations because that doesn’t come until way later. They could have actually had fun with the killer’s identity and had us suspecting it could be someone close to the protagonist. Instead, he’s a nameless faceless nobody and we get a somewhat predictable explanation for his motivations at the end. Even last year’s Lindsay Lohan debacle I Know Who Killed Me had enough sense to realize that keeping the murderer’s identity a secret can lead to an entertaining reveal. As for the killer himself, the less said the better. Tobin Bell’s job is safe.

The movie’s one saving grace is Diane Lane. That I’m still giving the film this low a rating despite her effort should give you an idea how bad it actually is. A widely known but little talked about prejudice in Hollywood is that male actors are encouraged take on action roles well into their 50’s and 60’s (i.e. Willis, Stallone and Ford) but the second an actress hits 40 they’re kicked to the curb and forced to play mothers in Disney films. There are very, very few exceptions to this. Lane is one of them. That she’s cast in an action heroine role is cause for celebration because she really deserves it and is believable in the part. Just as believable, if not more so, than any actress half her age.

Unfortunately, where as directors of male action leads go out of their way to protect their star and make them look youthful and energetic, Hoblit attempts to make Lane look old and haggard. He lights her unflatteringly and most of the picture she looks like she hasn’t slept for 5 years. And the funny thing is… he doesn’t really succeed. She still looks pretty good! But don’t think for a second any studio would allow a director to even attempt to pull that on Stallone or Willis. And why do I have the feeling that when this film tanked at the box office all the talk in conference calls the next day was how it’s Lane’s fault and further proof that women (especially over the age of 35) can’t carry suspense thrillers. Jodie Foster had to hear it last year. It’s not as if they need to be given decent material or anything.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were thinking as they viewed this film, co-starring their son Colin, in a darkened theater on premiere night. They couldn’t have liked it. Especially Tom. It probably hit him right then and there why he’s never starred in a Gregory Hoblit film. But they can take solace in the fact that young Hanks does give a lively performance and escapes what could have been a career killer with his acting dignity in tact. He tries but the script doesn’t give him anything to work with outside of the geeky partner role, which he plays as well as possible. Would it have killed the film to tease some sexual tension between him and Lane’s character? I found it hard to believe any straight man working with that woman wouldn’t feel something. I can’t say adding a creepy obsession on his part is great screenwriting but it’s better than anything this movie offered up and would have at least at made the time go faster. You know a movie’s bad when I’m stealing elements from last year’s awful Halle Berry thriller Perfect Stranger… to make it BETTER.

The term “torture porn” gets liberally thrown around a lot by the media these days at films that rarely deserve it. This does. In fact, the entire plot literally revolves around the topic. Say what you want about the Hostels and Saws of the world but they don’t have the ugly view of human nature found here. Even the worst installments of the Saw series (I’m looking at you number 4) contain plot complexities and ideas well out of this film’s reach. Hostel Part 2 tackled a similar violence as entertainment topic with far more intelligence.

A neat twist at the end of this film would have been for the site hits to just stop as the American public realizes they want no part of this. Or better yet, the hits speed up at alarming rates not because viewers want to see the captors die, but because they don’t want a hand in prolonging their suffering and encouraging this psycho. But that makes too much sense. If the filmmakers had done that then maybe Untraceable wouldn’t have been nearly unwatchable