'Blackhat' Review: A Terrifically Entertaining Cyber Thriller
Movies about computers or computer hackers have never been particularly exciting, at least on the big screen. Maybe that's because the act of typing something on a keyboard while little words or hieroglyphics of code appear on the screen in front of you isn't the most cinematic conceit. There's not a lot of drama or suspense to be mined from, say, checking your email or engaging in an online chat. No matter how fraught with tension these acts are in real life might seem, they rarely translate to anything even remotely gripping on the big screen. And there is a used car lot full of movies that have attempted to mine thrills from people doing things on a computer and failed miserably ("The Net," "Hackers," "Swordfish," etc.)
All of this brings us to "Blackhat," the latest film from Michael Mann, arguably one of American cinema's most visceral filmmakers. It's odd that he would choose a subject like cyber crime to sink his teeth into; this is the man who gets a raw thrill out of the ballet of broken glass, broken bones, and the way that people talk to each other, face-to-face. But of the many pleasures of "Blackhat," a movie that seems to have been instantly dismissed for reasons beyond my understanding, is watching how perfect Mann ends up being for the material. In the hands of a filmmaker less interested in the raw physicality of movies, it would have been a bore. Under Mann, "Blackhat" is positively electric.
The movie opens with an unknown hacker futzing with a nuclear reactor in China and causing a fairly dangerous meltdown (shades of the similar opening to "Godzilla"). In order to figure out who is responsible and stop similar, even-more-deadly attacks, a joint task force made up of Chinese and American officials spring a super handsome hacker named Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) from a maximum security prison to join in the investigation. Yes, this is silly, but Mann and his co-screenwriter Morgan Dvais Foehl make it just plausible enough that you never completely step out of the movie and go, "Wait... what?"
In the interest of full disclosure, Viola Davis co-stars as a member of the task force, and Yorick van Wageningen, the creepy guy who raped Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander in "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is, somewhat predictably, the bad guy. Mann is known for his characterization through physicality, and there's a moment of shocking earnestness when a character asks Davis who she lost in September 11th. It's an alarming moment of introspection and one of the movie's most touching scenes.
Part of what makes "Blackhat" such an effective cyber thriller (the best, probably, since Phil Alden Robinson's criminally underrated "Sneakers") is that he always favors something immediate and tactile, stuff like shootouts and fist fights and stakeouts. Hemsworth is an unconvincing nerd, but he makes a passing comment about how he had to keep both his mind and his body sharp in prison, and, again, it makes just enough sense in this skewered world. And Mann occasionally goes out of his way to remind us that he's still a dweeb at heart; while suiting up to face down the big villain at the end, he makes impromptu armor out of old magazines. (In another scene he fretfully works on a computer, his shirt hanging open to reveal his chiseled chest.)
Some of the suspense set pieces, including a super-intense shoot-out and the climax, set at some kind of ceremonial procession, are truly top notch Michael Mann. Like shootout-at-the-end-of-"Heat" good. In the last few movies Mann has favored a more crunchy, low-res form of digital photography; lots of extreme close ups and hand-held camerawork. Here he returns to his more cinematic roots, when he was known as one of Hollywood's chief stylists, offering a compelling combination of the kind of fluidity of earlier movies, with that immediate, no-frills approach that he brought to projects like "Public Enemies" and "Collateral."
All that said, it will be easy for people to pick apart "Blackhat." Everything from the plot mechanics, including the somewhat byzantine nature of the attacks (there's a bit about the criminal using the stock market to raise the price of soy futures that soared almost completely over my head), to the relationships between characters to Hemsworth's dicey American accent will, undoubtedly, all come under fire. But none of this dilutes the pure, raw excitement of "Blackhat." It's a movie about computers where keystrokes are just as important and full of tension as bullet hits, and where a new era of crime is mapped out in front of you, comprised totally of ones and zeroes. Exhilarating and powerful, "Blackhat" is the first thriller in the computer age to actually thrill. And, under Mann's watchful, artful eye, it does so spectacularly.
Bottomline: "Blackhat" is a superb cyber thriller starring an incredibly handsome Chris Hemsworth (without his trademark hammer, although at one point he wields an axe pretty well), full of giant set pieces, international scope, and some sequences that will have you gripping the theater arm rest (or your partner's forearm). Yes, it's ostensibly about computer hacking, but director Michael Mann makes it a terrifically entertaining real-world exercise in large-scale suspense.