A killer thriller is only as good as its concept, and “Untraceable” hits us with a doozy. The film dares to reach into the darkest corners of the Internet – those omnipresent “shock video” sites featuring raw footage of actual deaths – and forces us to question our morality for watching them. As websites like LiveLeak become increasingly popular online, it’s tougher to know when the line has been crossed, and this uncertainty about being desensitized to Internet violence is what makes “Untraceable” such a timely film.
The plot centers on a fictional website that may not be far removed from reality. On killwithme.com, an unseen creep posts a live video feed of a kitten slowly being baked to death. This site is brought to the attention of FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane, “Under the Tuscan Sun”), but she doesn’t take a full interest in the case until the first human victim appears, bound and gagged with a deadly, acidic substance being pumped into his veins. The killer has rigged this diabolic contraption to increase the dosage as more people log on to the website, thereby making the American public, as another agent puts it, “an accomplice to murder.”
Try as it might, the FBI is unable to track down the webmaster. He has discovered a way to hack into international IP addresses that restart the website every time it shuts down, thereby making himself, yes, untraceable. However, the question of how the FBI finds him and brings him to justice is not nearly as interesting as the question of why his website is so successful in the first place. Some viewers will no doubt find it implausible that this site could register millions of hits so quickly, but from a certain perspective, it makes sense. After all, it’s attracting the same people who turned “2 Girls 1 Cup” into a viral phenomenon last year.
It’s really too bad, then, that “Untraceable” is ultimately satisfied with being a procedural drama. We follow the cops as they track leads, peruse old videos, break down doors and question suspects. Jennifer Marsh, a single mom with an impossibly cute 8-year-old daughter, puts her family in jeopardy by staying on the case. There’s also a humorous sidekick (Colin Hanks, “Orange County”) and a gruff detective who is initially cold to Jennifer, but cares more than he lets on (Billy Burke, “Fracture”). And when we meet the evil mastermind, he is more than underwhelming.
The Internet is a powerful device, and “Untraceable” is a noble attempt to tap into the dramatic potential of a story like this. Since the killwithme.com site is such a profoundly creepy idea, certain aspects can be overlooked, such as moments where the film drags on or where the characters do some very stupid things. (Note to FBI agents: If you’re driving somewhere in stormy weather, check the backseat of your car for murderers.) Even though “Untraceable” sets itself up for more than it can deliver, the concept alone is strong enough to linger long after the movie has ended.
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase