An average to slightly above-average thriller with a noticeable lack of twists, predictable or otherwise, Untraceable is acceptable viewing for anyone who is a fan of Diane Lane or dense enough about the Internet to buy the film's premise, that a hacker of limited means and intelligence could create and maintain a high-profile Website; the origin of which is untraceable by the FBI. It's a conceit that sounds fishy even to the computer know-nothings in the theater and at one point the film acknowledges this, throwing in the caveat that while the technology to trace the killer does exist, it's only available to the National Security Agency, and they aren't willing to share their technology with the FBI. Uh-huh. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that that's the case. Once FBI agents themselves start getting murdered and their bodies grotesquely displayed on the site in question, wouldn't some responsible FBI chief threaten the NSA with a press conference to let America know that this culprit could be caught if the NSA spooks would only share their toys?

After they're stalked and selected, the killer's victims meet the sharp end of a taser and end up trapped in a Saw-like contraption in a dank basement, staring into a video camera that's sending feed to a website called KillWithMe.com -- yes, Sony has grabbed that particular domain and you should go there now to see some funny marketing. The killing mechanisms, be it a drip of acid into a water tank or the turning on of heat lamps one after the other, are incrementally activated by the number of hits the Website receives. The more people tune in, the faster the victim dies. Much like in Seven, the killer chooses high-profile, prominent victims to draw attention to his crimes and that only adds to the outlandishness of him being uncatchable. Still, there's enough lack of knowledge about the technology in question to make it sound something less than absurd, and the movie works on a the level of a cheap, quick ride that you can ride just long enough before it gets tiresome and irritating.


Diane Lane, looking less than her best as a haggard FBI cyber crimes detective, does an acceptable job in this paycheck gig, playing the material straight and tensing up the lines in her face when she needs to look frightened or agitated. We know even before we get to the theater that she will eventually have to come face to face with the killer, which begs the question -- how do these creeps always know exactly which detective has been assigned their case? Do they ever harass the wrong one by mistake? That might make for an interesting twist one of these days. Judging by Untraceable, there are exactly two people in the FBI who are responsible for nailing all of the country's cyber punks and they both work at tiny cubicles next to one another. They also have a boss who listens to their detailing of a computer crime in technical language and then confesses "I have no idea what you just said," which isn't very reassuring, since he's the head of the FBI's cyber crime division.

Colin Hanks, who not long ago starred in a much better film about a techno-creep called Alone With Her, plays Lane's sidekick and one of this low-budget film's few potential killers or red herrings. Early on he shows what seems to be a little too much knowledge about the killer's habits and typing shorthands, propelling him to the forefront of our scrutiny. If not his character, then who? Perhaps the beat cop played by Billy Burke? No, this killer has to be incredibly savvy with the computer, which limits the number of potential suspects. Untraceable more or less cuts the Gordian knot to solve this problem about halfway through the film, but I'll say no more on that. There are almost no other cast members of note in Untraceable, unless you count the middle school-aged daughter of Lane's character, who any breathing person knows must exist only to be put in some kind of mortal danger as the film goes on. This isn't the kind of film that can afford to have characters lying around with no purpose.

Director Gregory Hoblit, a veteran of television, knows how to create a snappy, three-act story with no frills and demonstrates that with this film. Much like his last film, Fracture, it takes the viewer from the beginning to the end without many stops on the way for character building or go-nowhere subplots. Not since 1996's Primal Fear, the film in which he discovered Edward Norton, has Hoblit shown much of an interest in layered character acting but that doesn't mean he's not an adequate storyteller. Untraceable is dark enough and R-rated enough that you're never quite sure whether it's going to have an up or a down ending -- things could conceivably go either way, and that's refreshing. For a January release, you can do a lot worse than this.