‘Blackhat’ Review: The Mann-liest Hacker Movie Ever

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Universal

On the list of uncinematic activities, computer hacking has to rank near the top, somewhere between small-business accounting and taking a nap. It’s tedious, static, and solitary work, and what little’s interesting about it is largely incomprehensible to those without advanced degrees in computer science. In a lesser filmmaker's hands, a hacker movie like ‘Blackhat’ would be terminally boring. But ‘Blackhat’ is in the hands of Michael Mann, and that means it’s also stylish, moody, and punctuated by intense action scenes.

After a prologue in which the meddling of a highly sophisticated “blackhat hacker” melts down a Chinese nuclear power plant—an act visualized by the camera zooming into a computer and then thru its CGI guts until it arrives at a place where little blue dots become little white dots, which I guess is really bad for some reason—a Chinese security analyst named Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) is assigned to find the culprit. Chen forms an alliance with his American counterpart (Viola Davis), and together they spring another hacker named Hathaway (‘Thor’’s Chris Hemsworth) from prison to help crack the case. If Hathaway catches their man, his sentence gets commuted. If he fails, he goes back to the slammer.

This Hathaway is one cool customer. It goes without saying that he’s an expert at computers and gadgets and all kinds of electronics. Like all real-world hackers, his hair is shampoo-commercial perfect (even in prison!) and he’s got the body of a Greek statue, despite the fact that he does a sum total of three push-ups in the entire film. He’s also a crack shot with a pistol and deadly in a fistfight. He seems to know how to handle himself in a radioactive hot zone. And he can improvise weapons like makeshift shivs and action scarves (you’ll know it when you see it in the movie). In a pinch, he even field dresses a bullet wound using supplies found at the local pharmacy. Where did he learn all this stuff?!? Mann doesn’t say.

That’s sort of his M.O. as a director. From ‘Thief’ to ‘Heat’ to ‘Public Enemies,’ Mann has never been one for heavy backstories or intricate character arcs. He prefers to focus instead on a few tried-and-true themes: the slippery boundary between cop and criminal; the complexity of alliances across that boundary; and the consequences of maintaining your principles in an unprincipled world. All three are on display in ‘Blackhat,’ which is so economical about character details it’s as if Mann’s producers had him on some kind of character-detail budget. (“Okay, you can have Hathaway talk about his father, but only for three seconds in the middle of a sex montage.”)

The chase for the elusive hacker leads Chen, Hathaway, and company around the world, from Los Angeles to China to Indonesia. Each stop looks stunning in Mann’s gritty, grainy digital camera. Along the way, he reveals more about Hathaway and Chen’s shared past, while the former strikes up a relationship with the latter’s sister, another computer expert named Lien (Tang Wei). Hemsworth and Tang don’t have much chemistry together, but their romance does ratchet up the tension between the characters, particularly after Hathaway’s activities land him back in hot water with the Feds and he must decide whether to do what’s right for his country or his love life.

Sexy hacker hookups? Action scarves? Scenes where furloughed convicts wander Los Angeles investigating crimes without supervision? Basically ‘Blackhat’ is hokum, but it’s the right kind of hokum. What do all the gunfights and chases and glamorous international lovemaking have to do with the realities of high-level cyber-espionage? Probably about as much as ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ had to do with global warming. But as occasionally preposterous thrillers go, ‘Blackhat’ is a good one. Hemsworth is a gruff, imposing hero (even if his American accent needs work), and the you-are-there-immediacy of Mann’s shootouts is off-the-charts; no one is better at making the viewer feel like they are right in the middle of all the blood and bullets. ‘Blackhat’ has two outstanding action highlights that set a very high bar for the year in tough-guy cinema.

Hackers aren’t known for their conversationalist skills, and ‘Blackhat’’s script, by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl is, somewhat appropriately, a forgettable mixture of cliches and dense techno-jargon. But when visuals speak as loudly as this film’s do, that’s not the end of the world. From big gestures like the torch-lit battle in an Indonesia park to the tiny touches like the billboards of giant faces that seem to peer into the heroes’ hotel rooms to suggest the constant surveillance they’re under, Mann’s images tell a story. There are fifty things about ‘Blackhat’ that make no sense. But on a visceral level, it works.

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