April 24, 2005
Track Down (1999) is a movie plagued by a troubled and checkered past. Based on the book Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura and John Markoff, it chronicled the battle between two computer experts: ace hacker Kevin Mitnick and computer crimes expert Shimomura that eventually resulted in Mitnick’s imprisonment. The movie was made back in 1998 and immediately became embroiled in controversy. Mitnick was still in prison and concerned with the reportedly negative portrayal of his character in the movie. He filed a defamation of character suit and a demonstration outside Miramax’s New York City offices resulted in several changes to the screenplay. Stinging from the all of this negative publicity, Miramax released the movie overseas as Cybertraque and has finally (and quietly) released it on DVD here in North America.
Kevin Mitnick (Ulrich) and his buddy Alex (Logue) are small-time computer hackers who find a way to crack the FBI’s communication system. However, Mitnick is caught while on probation and forced to go underground in order to avoid being arrested. Two years pass and his legend grows—he has now become one of the most wanted hackers in the world. Kevin tries to get access to a cell phone scanner that will allow him stay one step ahead of the Feds. He runs up against the nation’s leading computer crimes expert Tsutomu Shimomura (Wong) and they begin a cat and mouse game trying to one up each other through all kinds of mischievous cyber-trickery. Also after Kevin is a determined FBI agent (McDonald) and his superior (Berenger) who are tired of getting chewed out by their bosses for the bad publicity that Kevin is giving the government.
With this kind of movie, people want to see a good drama unfold but it is very tough to make one that involves computers and a lot of talking. You need a dynamic tempo and interesting actors who can deliver the dialogue properly and engagingly. The right mix is evident in films like The Insider (1999) and Shattered Glass (2003) but doesn’t quite materialize properly in Track Down. There is not enough of a build up to Mitnick’s crime. The severity of it is not conveyed properly and isn’t compelling enough because we don’t appreciate its significance.
For years, Skeet Ulrich has often been regarded by critics as a poor man’s Johnny Depp. While he had good turns in Scream (1996) and As Good As It Gets (1997), he’s had his share of turkeys (Chill Factor anyone?) as well. However, he is quite good as the slightly creepy and very obsessive hacker, Mitnick. He manages to disappear into the role and adeptly handles all of the computer jargon rather nicely. He also does a good job of conveying the disintegration of his character. Mitnick is always on the run, paranoid and unable to have any kind of normal social life. It takes its toll on his temperament and results in his eventual downfall.
Russell Wong (The Joy Luck Club) is also good as Mitnick’s nemesis. Shimomura is determined to find and stop Mitnick and this results in a battle of wills. He too is an obsessive hacker but he actually has a life outside of the computer world. However, the film takes great care in illustrating that he is like Mitnick in many ways and that the law is the only thing that separates them.
“Behind the Kevin Mitnick Story” is a standard promo press kit look at the real people and events. It does touch upon the dangers of computer crime and feature interview soundbites with the cast and crew but those interested in a more in-depth look at what really went down should check out the documentary, Freedom Downtime (2001).
Track Down is Hackers (1995) without the hip soundtrack and MTV-style editing. All of the right ingredients are floating around; they just weren’t mixed properly by director Joe Chappelle (Phantoms). His direction isn’t consistent. At times, it seems as if he was afraid to follow through and commit to a full-on visual sensibility. With a different, more experienced director with a better visual eye, Track Down could have been a much better movie.