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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/22/2008 4:25:56 PM ET 2008-01-22T21:25:56
REVIEW

“Untraceable” is one of those sick, violent movies that wants to make its audience feel guilty for enjoying sick, violent entertainment, so perhaps the best way to honor the film’s intention is by not going to see it. It’s certainly the preferable alternative for anyone who doesn’t want to see talented performers like Diane Lane, Colin Hanks and Mary Beth Hurt wasted on an insufferably stupid script.

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Lane stars as Jennifer Marsh, a Portland, Ore.–based FBI agent who specializes in tracking down cyber-crimes like identity theft. One day, a new site called Kill With Me pops up, inviting the jaded masses to look on while the mysterious webmaster tortures and kills first a kitten and then innocent human victims.

The premise of the site is that the more viewers who log in, the faster the hapless patsy will die, thus making the online voyeurs into passive accomplices. (The elaborate murders include death by anticoagulant, sun lamp and sulfuric acid — the more hits the site gets, the more the method of demise is increased.) See? It’s all our fault for watching! Get it? GET IT?

What makes the movie’s hypocrisy about violence and mayhem so galling is that the killer (Joseph Cross of “Running with Scissors,” effectively transforming himself into a heavy-lidded, if too-young, psycho) has a ridiculously well planned agenda of revenge. What seemed like a random series of victims for his site actually ties together into a master plan so ludicrously overorchestrated and symbolic that it resembles the thematic crimes the Riddler and Catwoman used to try to pull off on the old “Batman”  TV show.

“Untraceable” also makes a stab at caring about Jennifer’s life — she works the graveyard shift so she can spend more time with her school-aged daughter after the death of her husband in the line of duty, and her mom (Hurt) helps out around the house. But it turns out that the film is just biding time until it can 1) put the little girl in jeopardy and 2) force a climactic battle between Jennifer and the killer that can come about only when Jennifer behaves moronically, seemingly forgetting everything they taught her at FBI school. Seriously, movie, why give us this interesting, capable heroine and then completely betray her just because you can’t figure out a better way to bring her face-to-face with the online boogeyman?

One expects better from director Gregory Hoblit, the “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” vet who made an impressive feature debut with the twisty “Primal Fear.” While the film carries an interesting tone of rainy gloom throughout — cinematographer Anastas Michos makes the most of shooting Portland in Portland and not, for once, in Vancouver — but the honkingly stupid script is the kind that inspires “Mystery Science Theater” call-and-response.

Robert Fyvolent and Mark R. Brinker get story and co-screenplay credit, but the script’s final polish was perpetrated by Allison Burnett, who has in recent years has subjected audiences to “Autumn in New York,” “Resurrecting the Champ,” and “Feast of Love.” “Untraceable” confirms that Burnett’s work is, in fact, unwatchable.

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