An exhilarating Johnnie To-like procedural ripped straight from the headlines yet unceremoniously dumped in a mid-January release and hidden behind a critical embargo, Michael Mann’s Blackhat will likely prove just as divisive as his previous two films, Miami Vice and Public Enemies. It’s a mainstream action movie unlike any other; the studio clearly had no idea what to make of it, and most audiences probably won’t, either.
But I loved every minute of it: in a season of overhyped awards contenders, Blackhat is exactly the kind stripped-down, no-nonsense thriller I needed. And – like the best of Mann’s movies – it’s a gloriously moody exercise in style that lives and breathes and envelops you in its world just as much as it does its story.
It’s also – and this is no real complement, given the competition (Hackers? The Net?) – the best mainstream movie about hackers ever made. When we think of hacking, we usually picture programs running lines of code, or machines cranking away brute-force style to gain access to encrypted data (I’ll always imagine something like Alan Turing’s immense machine in The Imitation Game).
But one of the greatest strengths of Blackhat is that, in numerous scenes, it boils ‘hacking’ down to a level that is all-too real: social engineering. Whether it’s an email request to change a password, a plea for help to print out some documents on a USB drive, or even borrowing a cell phone for seconds under the guise of helping make a call, the film frequently positions hacking in terms that we can understand all too well.
And while the hacker in this movie – played by Chris Hemsworth – is using his skills for good (to track down another, more vicious hacker) the simplicity with which he achieves his goals is scary. That USB stick comes with a giant Sony logo, and the film couldn’t have come out at a better time, when Sony’s company-wide hack is pointing away from a massive North Korea conspiracy and towards an inside job that highlights basic security flaws within the organization.
At the start of Blackhat, a Hong Kong nuclear reactor is destroyed via malicious software; shortly after, the same program is used to drive up the price of soy on the New York stock exchange. Chinese investigator Chen Dawai (Lee-Hom Wang) and his brainy sister Lien (Wei Tang) fly to the US to work the case with FBI investigators played by Viola Davis, John Ortiz, and Holt McCallany.
He has just one request from the FBI: spring Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a convicted hacker currently serving time in federal prison, to assist in the case. They need Hathaway to help track down this unknown threat because he and Chen wrote the code used in the attacks when they were both students at MIT.
This is pulp material, and it gets pulpier as the action moves from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta. There’s an understated romance between Hathaway and Lien – serious, serious stuff – and a few masterfully choreographed action scenes that recall the best of Mann’s work, where we viscerally take in every punch or bullet or explosion with a tangible thud.
One problem: the film has some issues with credibility, starting with the unlikely casting of the brawny Hemsworth as a brainy hacker (this is kinda-sorta explained during scenes of Hathaway working out while in solitary confinement) and continuing with the need to have his character front-and-center during scenes that he probably shouldn’t be (convicted felon riding along for a police raid? Walking into a radiation zone in full hazmat gear? OK.)
We accept these things during most genre films without thinking twice – I’ll always remember Denzel Washington’s radio dispatcher hunting down the baddies in the Tony Scott’s Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 remake – but Mann’s film is smarter than the usual stuff and we expect a little more.
Blackhat reminded me most of the kind of procedural film that Johnnie To makes – fitting considering the Hong Kong setting and characters played by Wang and Tang – and in particular his most recent, the excellent police thriller Drug War. Mann’s film is wider in scope, and much more ambitious, than that one, if not quite as satisfying on the procedural level; one too many compromises may have been made along the way.
The finished film shows some signs of post-production tampering: sound mixing is particularly choppy, with dialogue in certain scenes all over the map. Strangely, foul language seems to have been excised, while violence remains largely intact (in any event, the film earned an ‘R’ rating stateside).
Title refers to a “black hat” hacker, a term used for a malicious hacker who “violates computer security for little reason beyond maliciousness or for personal gain.”