Being a somewhat generic thriller about a very generic young man with a troubled past, Tracers gives its protagonist, Cam (Taylor Lautner), an obligatory surrogate little brother in the form of his landlord’s young son. The subplot isn’t especially convincing, not just because it exists primarily to offer bonus peril when Cam gets involved with criminals, but because Cam (which is to say Lautner) is the one who seems like the excitable, suggestible kid brother of the relationship. He’s the one doing sweet daredevil tricks during his day job as a bike messenger, and he’s the one so suggestible that in the middle of a personal financial crisis—he owes big money to a Chinatown gang—he puts his job search on pause to teach himself parkour.
At least his impulsiveness is consistent, if unexamined. Cam is the type of simple-minded hero who throws away his whole bicycle rather than simply replacing a wrecked front wheel, and he lives in the type of simple-minded movie that seems to consider that decision bad luck rather than stupidity. Cam all but forgets about his destroyed livelihood after crashing into Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos), the mysterious and dexterous young woman who inadvertently seduces him into the world of parkour. Soon he learns Nikki and the other parkour youth led by Miller (Adam Rayner) don’t just do parkour for the thrills of leaping on, off, and around various New York City buildings. They also use their training to perform various freelance heists.
Tracers, then, is unavoidably a movie about Taylor Lautner joining a parkour gang, and often exactly as silly as that sounds. But it’s also a major improvement over Lautner’s last action-thriller, Abduction, which had little action, few thrills, and zero abductions. In the parkour sequences here, director Daniel Benmayor shows flair for capturing bodies in motion, throwing his handheld camera into the action without turning it into impressionistic chaos. His dedication to this technique is a mixed blessing, leading to some impressive unbroken handheld shots during chase sequences along with some dialogue scenes needlessly staged by whipping the camera back and forth. Luckily, there are stretches where the action’s scrappy, kinetic fun dominates (the dialogue scenes are probably a lost cause anyway). When the gang members run and jump their way through gunfire late in the movie, they look like they’re actually dodging the bullets, not just getting action-movie lucky. Too bad they don’t spend more time in more danger: Tracers has a weird structural glitch of not showing any full heist jobs for over an hour, which means the early scenes, well shot as they are, seem like they could just as easily appear on YouTube under the title “Taylor Lautner’s Awesome Parkour Demo (Please Share).”
The movie has other limits, namely Lautner himself. He remains an endearingly inept movie star, matching the brooding, handsome look of a young athlete with the slightly nasal, flat voice of an athlete trying his hand at drama club. No amount of facial hair can render him believable as a juvie parolee, and while Lautner made his bones doing teenage romance in the Twilight series, he and Avgeropoulos can only simulate chemistry by staring into each other’s faces from extremely short distances. What he does well, though, is jump into parkour stunts with physical commitment, like he’s living out his own junior-high lunchroom daydreams about meeting a pretty girl who can show him rad stunts. Lautner may not have the chops to play a character like Spider-Man, but in Tracers, it’s surprisingly fun to watch him try.