'Blackhat': Film Review

The cybercrime topicality packs less punch than the visceral thrill ride

Chris Hemsworth takes on a malware scheme of global proportions in Michael Mann’s thriller.

A hacker plot of spectacular malevolence propels Blackhat, Michael Mann’s alternately heart-pounding and disappointingly dry new thriller. Drilling straight into Digital Age anxieties, the filmmaker brings his affinity for outsiders, and his cinematic mastery of the cityscape, to the globe-hopping story of a convict who becomes a government asset and, finally, a fugitive. At its best, the movie achieves a broody dazzle, even as the narrative proves less memorable than one would have hoped. But the fluency of Mann’s direction and the slow-burn chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei counterbalance the more ordinary, and not always involving, procedural elements.

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For all its headline-resonant specifics about computer forensics, Blackhat — which takes its name from the term for hackers with destructive intent — has something of an old-school movie heart: Its central couple’s race against the clock recalls such '60s thrillers as Stanley Donen’s Arabesque, which pitted no less than Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren against devious masterminds using hieroglyphic messages. Here the hieroglyphics are strings of glowing numbers on screens, and while Mann’s vision is far grittier and more muscular than Donen’s, it’s no less elegant. A tinge of glamour, too, is an unavoidable side effect when the lead actor has just been christened People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

With far more moving parts than Mann’s Collateral, the movie hasn’t the sleek tautness of that drama. But audiences seeking a grown-up alternative to awards-season prestige pictures, and those drawn by the chance to see Hemsworth without the fantasy trappings of Thor — but with a beefcake opportunity or two — should give the wide release a solid box-office showing.

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For his first big-screen directorial effort since 2009’s Public Enemies, Mann orchestrates a series of bravura set pieces, both stateside and in Asia. The story, scripted by Morgan Davis Foehl from the director’s research, opens with a bolt of urgency as two very different disasters strike in quick succession, both triggered by malware: a nuclear plant explosion in China and a market-toppling run-up in U.S. commodities futures. Despite the reluctance of her boss (John Ortiz), FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis, formidable) liaises with Chinese cyberdefense expert Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), who insists that the man for the job is his former MIT classmate, Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth).

A coding genius who took a few wrong turns and landed in the penitentiary, Hathaway is a taciturn Robin Hood of sorts — his hacking targeted banks, not people, he’s quick to point out. He's also quick to parlay the feds’ offer of furlough for his case-solving efforts into a commutation of his 15-year sentence if he gets the culprit. His chief ally in the project turns out to be Chen’s ambitious network engineer sister, Chen Lien (Tang) — who, given the actress’s accented English, apparently spent less time in the States than her brother. In many ways, though, she’s more savvy.

Not only does Lien know how to smooth over tensions with the flinty Carol, but she’s sensitive to Hathaway’s disorientation upon being released from prison. Even when they clash, these two understand each other; Hemsworth and Tang (Lust, Caution) imbue the characters with a melancholy intensity. They’re old souls whose emotional connection comes to the fore across a restaurant table in L.A.’s Koreatown, albeit somewhat tempered by Tang’s apparent struggle with the English dialogue. Tellingly, their breakthrough moment gives way to a dark intrusion, and the scene ends in brutal violence.

With no one claiming responsibility for the disasters and Hathaway certain that “the real hit is still to come,” the pressure is on. The search for the plot’s architect will take the central characters from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, with Stuart Dryburgh’s dynamic cinematography a fine match for Mann’s robust visual style.

But the essential problem of cyber-thrillers is one that even so gifted a director hasn’t quite solved, particularly in the film’s first half: Characters looking at computer screens and explaining the significance of what they see doesn’t make for the most riveting viewing. Mann augments the talk of encrypted data, IP addresses and remote access tools with stylized effects that represent the Internet. The camera swoops through a grid of circuitry that begins to look like an icy vista of abandoned underworld cities, giving form to the shadow side of wired-world connectedness. The device recalls the opening of his first theatrical film, Thief, way back in analog days, with its dive into the inner workings of machinery.

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It isn’t until an hour in, once the hit-and-miss business of setup is out of the way, that the movie hits its charged stride. In subways, seaports and city centers, the pulse-point cutting (by a quartet of editors) is both precise and unobtrusive, whether the scene is a chase or a conversation. The music (by a trio of composers) is variously churning, melodic and percussive, in every case a mood-heightening match for the visuals.

The ultimate scheme turns out to be a geopolitical doozy that requires a liberal suspension of disbelief, undercutting the story’s potential chill factor. Mann has never shied away from big gestures, and if Blackhat is more effective as a visceral ride than a thought-provoking commentary, it’s nonetheless filled with stunning images of dark beauty.

The dialogue, mostly crisp and sparse, can lapse into corny as well, and a single line of pointed backstory for Davis’ character feels tacked-on. But the cast is sharp down the line, with Ritchie Coster’s baddie a menacing standout among the supporting performers.

Tang and pop star Wang effortlessly convey their sibling characters’ privileged background, while Hemsworth makes Hathaway a compelling mystery man, deploying a sideways glance like a tactical weapon. Much of the movie may feel far-fetched, but not Hathaway’s willingness to cross a certain line — with none other than the NSA. It’s a move that will set him adrift, forced to run from governments as well as cybercriminals. In so doing, he joins a lineage: the men outside the system who populate Mann’s singular filmography.

Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Forward Pass
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom
Director: Michael Mann
Screenwriter: Morgan Davis Foehl
Producers: Thomas Tull, Michael Mann, Jon Jashni
Executive producers: Eric McLeod, Alex Garcia
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editors: Joe Walker, Stephen Rivkin, Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Mako Kamitsuna
Composers: Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross, Leo Ross
Casting: Bonnie Timmermann

Rated R, 135 minutes