I believed the FBI really had a cyber investigations department, though to make sure I checked the Web site after watching "Untraceable," Hollywood's latest cyber-thriller. It's there, and they do sort of go after the kinds of criminals who make you worry about giving a Web site your credit card security code. The way they do it, however, might not be as cinematic as in the movie, with a riot squad in full armor breaking down the suburban door of an identity thief and dragging him, all 14 or so years, into the street where they can cuff him and stuff him.
"Untraceable" is that kind of movie, taking a real if relatively mundane social topic and dressing it up into another schlocky, standard-fare popcorn-muncher. The producers probably fretted over whether they would succeed in titillating middle America with a tale of cutting-edge dangers or seem 10 years behind the times, like Sandra Bullock in "The Net." But such concerns are beside the point. What would have really made "Untraceable" stand out is if it had dedicated itself to its nugget of interesting social commentary -- our need to see the wreckage on the highway or on YouTube rather than exploit it for cheap thrills.
We are introduced to cyber-crime-fighting during a normal night for Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), who surfs the Web deep in the high-security cubicles of a Portland Bureau office. She works with Griffin (Colin Hanks), a super-nerd who is meant to be her sidekick but is written only well enough to make cringe-inducing comments about the Internet, like "It's a jungle in there."
During routine busts involving child pornographers and identity thieves, Jennifer comes across www.killwithme.com, which is broadcasting in real time the torture and murder of a kitten. Jennifer and her team can neither shut down the site down nor find out who is running it or where, and watch helplessly as the perp very soon graduates from felines to humans. Victims are brought online one after the other, with the killer plotting their fate so that it is sealed faster the more users log on to view.
Such a setup might sound gimmicky, with scenes in which the killer cackles as the numbers are ticking up. But the events generally are not played for suspense. During the slow deaths of victims, we do see standard war-room stuff with high-tech detectives running around helplessly. But we are also shown the online reactions, with users like "heretosee" and "goldblossom" chiming in with their inane comments: "I waited around for this?"; "Some people shud be behind bars!"
Though such crassness might not fill a feature film, it is welcome stuff amid the more mundane police suspense that makes up the bulk of "Untraceable." Jennifer gets into predictable arguments with her technology-challenged boss, hides out in a secluded motel and, though she's supposed to be an Internet crime fighter, spends an inordinate amount of time creeping around with her pistol drawn. To further the plot, minor characters either get knocked off or make obvious comments meant to explain things.
Like most movies bent on exploiting technology, the further "Untraceable" goes to heighten the tension, the sillier it becomes. When Griffin is captured by the killer, he sends in a clue by blinking his eyes in Morse code. As if we've never seen such a thing before, the killer positions a camera to record Jennifer's house and broadcasts it on his site. After the killer knocks out a victim, drags him to his lair, cements him to the floor and fries him with hundreds of heat lamps triggered by Internet users, a specialist is brought in to pick his brain. "Definitely not random" is the conclusion. Wow, thanks.
By the finale, "Untraceable" abandons all pretense of a higher purpose, careening between stereotypical end-game action sequences and outright laziness. The killer's motive, as well as the flat, almost deadpan way it is revealed, is particularly laugh-inducing. There are too many coincidences and contrived connections to explain here, but one must assume whoever dreamt it up is a big fan of the old board game Mouse Trap. But the biggest problem with "Untraceable" is simple hypocrisy. The more it criticizes our obsession with violence and crude behavior, the more you realize that's the very thing it's selling. (PG-13) 101 min. S