What begins as an interesting techno thriller, about the changing world of virtual crime and how it affects both deviants and audiences alike, gradually escalates into a gruesomely gory serial killer yarn, ending on such a false and preposterous note that most of its relevant underlying issues, such as the insatiable taste for voyeurism, get lost in the process.

Rising above it all, both literally and figuratively, is the great Diane Lane, who gives a solid, utterly grounded performance as the smart FBI agent, a young widow and single mom who's determined to resolve a case that increasingly gets too close to home.

Given the alarming global political contexts in which we live, I am not sure that what the world needs right now is another serial killer movie, but it would have helped if “Untraceable” was as good in execution as its promising title suggests.

Succumbing to the genre's demands and all the visual clichs (woman alone in the dark, unnecessarily open windows, a young girl unguarded, a cat that seems more alert that the surrounding humans), Gregory Hoblit, a director with penchant for smooth, elegant suspense thrillers (“Primal Fear,” “Frequency,” “Fracture”), delivers the basic goods, but gives the impression that his heart and craft were not in the picture.

The au-courant script, penned by Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker, and Allison Burnett, from a story by Fyvolent and Brinker, reflects our new reality, as it is shaped, conditioned, and modified by the Interent.

With 100 minutes of running time, the narrative is divided into three equal parts, each ending with sort of a climax, though the best of which is the first.

The yarn starts rather promisingly by establishing the existence within the FBI of a division devoted to investigating and prosecuting Internet criminals. Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is the ultimate pro, confident that she has seen every type of computer-driven crime–until she encounters a new, truly scary one. An ultra-savvy Internet predator is alarmingly displaying his graphic murders on his own website, which is untraceable.

The fate of each of his tormented captives is left in the hands of the lay public, the friendly users. The more hits his dangerously lethal site gets, the faster his victims diein front of million of viewers around the world, with the clock ticking and number of users (by the millions) registered on screen.

What ensues in the second reel is a cat-and mouth chase, which gets more and more personal, with Marhs and her team having to race against the clock to track down a killer who's a technical masterminda genius.

The versatile Diane Lane plays a new type of career woman, one who works hard to maintain a delicate balance between her life as a single mother of an intelligent 8-year-old daughter and her ever-demanding job as a law enforcement officer. The script alternates between Jennifer's job and home life with her daughter and her own mother (Mary Beth Hurt), who takes care of the kid. Called on duty, Jennifer even sacrifices her daughter's birthday party, which she had planned in detail.

Each night, Jennifer Marsh trolls the Internet world with her younger partner Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, actor Tom Hanks' son), trying to crack down on credit card fraud and sexual predators from the bureau's field office, in Portland, Oregon. When Jennifer and Griffin receive a tip regarding a creepy new website called Killwithme.com, they begin to monitor it in an effort to determine its authenticity and location.

At first, the site seems too outrageous and bizarre to be true. The site's creator may be sick but ultra-bright: He begins with stranding a kitten on a sticky rattrap, thus ensuring that Jennifer's bosses dismiss the case as a minor one. However, when the killer calls on viewers to spread the word, and they obediently and excitingly follow his dictates, the cat dies in slow-motion on camera.

The screenplay is no doubt timely, with most of us browsing through the Internet hours per day. It turns out that the cyber-crime unit of the FBI is relatively new; it was established about six or seven years ago.

The case is rather unusual, because it doesn't deal with child abuse, or credit card theft–it deals with somebody who's actually committing a murder and is using the Internet to facilitate, expedite, and sensationalize it to the max. Despite warnings by the FBI, the viewing public continues to visit the siteferociously–knowing all too well that the more people tune in, the faster the victim dies.

You don't have to be a movie expert to predict that soon some of the FBI members themselves would become captives and/or victims, thus raising the stakes and the personal and professional involvements of their supervisors.

Hoblit, whose impressive resume includes the feature “Primal Fear,” the thriller that put Edward Norton on the map, as well as episodes of TV series such as “NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues,” may be the right director for such material. More recently, Hoblit directed New Line's elegant suspenser “Fracture,” co-starring Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins. But here he seems constrained by the material, or conveniently seduced by set pieces seen in numerous horror flicks, “Copy Cat” and “Seven,” among them.

The producers claimed that they “really investigated the technical stuff, so that all the cyber geeks out there will appreciate the film's authenticity.” It's pretty complex stuff, and the discussion of why the killer's site is untraceable leaves some open questions.

What is more bothersome than the site's authentic operations is the false, preachy note with which the story ends. You have to see the film to fathom this, but the killer rebels against media saturation strategies (like replaying the same image over and over) that he himself all too willingly later exploits for his sakeas well as for ours*.

Worse, in his big message speech, the killer declares that, “Soon, executions will be delivered to our houses for just $10, and they will begin by announcing, “brought to you by such and such sponsor.” When Peter Finch acted as a prophet of gloom and doom in “Network,” exiting the masses with his pop psychology, you believed him. Here, you're just glad the movie is over.