Despite opening in the US just weeks after the Sony hack made international headlines, Michael Mann’s cyber-thriller failed to fire the synaptic circuitry of the American public, scoring poorly at the box office. The collective-shrug reviews didn’t help, though that is the downside of being a master filmmaker: each new picture is held against previous accomplishments (Manhunter, Heat, The Insider) and graded accordingly; if Blackhat was the work of a tyro director, its flaws might have been forgiven in favour of all that’s exemplary.
Opening, cumbersomely, with a camera-dive into a computer mainframe to track lines of code as they surge through a seemingly infinite grid, it transpires that the target of this e-tsunami of malware is the takedown – or rather, meltdown – of the Chai Wan Nuclear Power Plant. The following day a second attack plays havoc with a commodities market; a cool $74m is pilfered – plucked, in effect, from thin air.
To track the ‘blackhat’ (bad guy, as in westerns) hacker, the Chinese and US whitehats are forced into an uneasy coalition, represented, respectively, by agents Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) and Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). But they’re not going to crack the code and catch a scent of its maker without the help of Dawai’s former MIT roommate Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), an improbably buff binary boffin who’s serving 13 years for some manner of cyber chicanery that’s passed off in a single line of exposition. Furloughed, Nick heads up a team that also includes Dawai’s sister, Lien (Wei Tang), if only to provide a love interest. And so begins a cat-and-mouse, against-the-clock pursuit. “The real hit is still to come…” Nick rumbles ominously.
For all the frantic, heavy-fingered tapping of keyboards in an effort to chase down codes, smash through firewalls and shackle IP addresses, Blackhat never loses a chance to bring physicality to the hunt. Kitted in shades and open-necked shirts, Nick, Dawai and Lien ricochet from America to China to Indonesia to Malaysia, with all of Mann’s favourite toys – cars, choppers, jets, speedboats, subway trains – coming thrillingly into play.
The big bad, when finally aligned in Nick’s sights, trails an entourage of suited, heavily weaponised goons, thus allowing Mann a couple of signature gun battles. They’re sublime, the action auteur looking to outdo himself by setting one shootout in concrete passageways (deafening) and adding a flurry of short, sharp crash-zooms and pockets of slo-mo to another.
Given the director’s renowned demand for absolute authenticity, it should be said that the likelihood of such scenarios coming into play is debatable. But then you wouldn’t expect, or indeed want, Mann to make a movie about a spotty kid staring at his monitor in just his pants as he races after bad guys from his mouldering bedroom. In Blackhat, data has human representation and real-world impact. It’s a smart motif, with the whooshing white lights of the CG grid echoed by the colour-coded surge of human life in Jakarta’s Papua Square-set climax, while the lit skyscrapers of night-time cityscapes waver between the electrical and the virtual.
The first movie that Mann has shot entirely on hi-def digital video after experimenting with the format in Ali, Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, Blackhat comes with ugly fluctuations of image and audio, but there’s noir poetry in the neon streets and heavy skies, breath-stealing beauty in the heat-ripples rising from an asphalt airstrip.
It’s a shame, then, that Asgardian warrior Hemsworth doesn’t possess the heft of the best Mann’s men (De Niro, Pacino, Day-Lewis, Crowe, Caan). Opting for a perhaps-Californian accent and borrowing a mouthful of gravel from Bale’s Batman, he just can’t sell stock Mann-speak lines like, “I did the crime; I’m doing the time, the time isn’t doing me.” It’s not that he’s bad, more that he’s fine – and fine doesn’t cut it in a Mann movie. Thankfully dialogue is kept to a minimum, and Hemsworth flexes in set-pieces so brutal they’ll leave viewers picking their teeth from among the kernels of popcorn on the cinema floor.
For all of its flaws, Blackhat is an atmosphere-rich thriller that sees the director in experimental mode. But it’s also unmistakably a Mann movie, right down to the woozy electro score and the locking and loading of all of the director’s favourite themes: personal and professional ethics, men (and women) defined by their work, good and evil as two sides of the same coin. Terrific.
VERDICT: It’s no Heat but the niggles are easily forgiven given the virtuosity on show and the mood oozing from every frame. No one shoots faces, architecture and gunfights like Mann.
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