US / 133 minutes / color / Legendary, Forward Pass, Universal Dir: Michael Mann Pr: Thomas Tull, Michael Mann, Jon Jashni Scr: Morgan Davis Foehl Cine: Stuart Dryburgh Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom, Christian Borle, Jason Butler Harner, Spencer Garrett, Andy On, Danny Burstein, Archie Kao, Abhi Sinha, Manny Montana, Liang Shi, Kan Mok, Kirt Kishita.
Michael Mann’s movies can sometimes suffer from impenetrable plotting, and indeed the plot of Blackhat is supremely complex, with a large cast of integral characters, yet I found it refreshingly lucid. It’s a technothriller in something approaching the William Gibson mode, although—as arguably befits a screen presentation—with the accent more on the thrill than (except perhaps visually) the techno. I gather this emphasis was even more exaggerated in the trailers, which portrayed Blackhat as essentially a hackneyed action movie; that marketing misstep has been blamed for the offering’s dire performance at the box office. For me, although I have some deep reservations about Blackhat (see below), I also found it compulsively watchable, as much because of its conceptual cleverness as anything else, shootemups and chases included.
A hacker uses a type of code known as a remote access tool (RAT) to sabotage a nuclear power station in Hong Kong. Soon afterward, in the US, a variant of that same code is used to manipulate soy prices such that the hacker makes a hefty profit. The Chinese authorities, investigating the power-plant incident, put the matter in the hands of Captain Chen Dawai (Wang), a military cyberneticist who studied at MIT.
Dawai recognizes the basis of the code. He and his MIT roomie and best friend, Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth), devised it for fun many years ago. The hacker—the “blackhat”—must have found it online somewhere and downloaded it before adapting it for their own nefarious use.
Dawai and Nick are thus the two ideally qualified individuals to spearhead the hunt for the malefactor. Trouble is, Nick’s serving a lengthy sentence for cybercrime . . .
You can guess the next bit. Dawai negotiates with the FBI’s Special Agent Carol Barrett (Davis) and her boss, Stanley Pollack (Ortiz), for Nick’s release; however, Nick must wear a security anklet and be accompanied everywhere he goes by a US Marshal, Mark Jessup (McCallany). Slowly, as they travel together, the initially prickly and suspicious Carol and Mark become more engaged with the two hackers and with Dawai’s sister, a skilled networking engineer, Chen Lien (Tang), whom he has persuaded to help them.
The trail takes our heroes to San Francisco, Hong Kong, Jakarta (Indonesia) and Perak (Malaysia). Pretty soon they realize a key figure in the conspiracy is Lebanese mercenary Elias Kassar (Coster), but almost immediately Kassar realizes they’re onto him and, with his gang, fights bloodily back. Nick and Dawai are certain, though, that Kassar isn’t the kingpin: the blackhat, the master-conspirator, is pulling Kassar’s strings.
It’s in Malaysia that Nick realizes the true, vile purpose of the conspiracy, one that’ll trade massive loss of human life for the perpetrators’ economic gain. When he finally talks with the blackhat, Sadak (van Wageningen), he discovers there’s perhaps even a deeper motive than that: Sadak regards the whole operation also as a game to be played for the fun of it . . .
The plotting of Blackhat works pretty well on the macro level—you could criticize it on grounds of implausibility, but remember this is technothriller territory we’re in and judge accordingly. At the more detailed level, though, it seems to me to be more problematic, not least because of a seeming perceived need to drag most or all of our principals into each and every adventure.
This reaches a height of silliness in one sequence where a hard drive has to be recovered from the still highly radioactive control room of the sabotaged nuclear reactor. Sent to do this task are three men: local expert Paul Wang (Kishita), a sensible pick, plus Nick and Dawai. Neither of the latter has any expertise whatsoever in working in hazmat suits in a “hot” environment; yet the place is teeming with specialists in exactly this. Besides, the whole mission to stop the blackhat depends on the cybernetics expertise of these two: Would anyone really be so foolish as to risk losing the lives and thereby the services of Nick and Dawai unnecessarily?
To make matters worse, within moments of their arrival in the “hot” control room Wang keels over—I’m not sure why—so our heroes have to recover the drive and be heroic in all directions rescuing him.
I was also, as so often in globe-trotting action movies, puzzled as to where all the leading lady’s changes of clothing came from, bearing in mind that she seemed to carry almost nothing in the way of luggage. Then again, after a particular scene of carnage in the midst of a religious festival, it seems our heroes don’t have to worry about the cops turning up to find out what’s been going down: Nick and Lien recoup in a car near to the scene with nary a siren audible outside.
Lang Weehom and Tang Wei are completely credible as the brother and sister cyber-experts, and both of them turn in truly first-rate performances: they’re a major reason why I was kept so involved in the proceedings. They project an aura of intelligence and technical grasp that was for me entirely convincing.
I had very great difficulty, though, in buying the notion of Chris Hemsworth as a computer genius who whiles away his time in prison reading Jacques Derrida and Brian Greene and who’s also an action hero capable of fighting three professional thugs at a time or handling any form of firearm that’s put into his mitts. (Maybe he learned to brawl in prison, but that doesn’t explain the weapons expertise.) To be honest, I find that a little of Hemsworth’s seemingly ineradicable expression here of petulant, swaggering supercool goes a very long way, so perhaps my inability to credit him as Nick is a matter of personal bias. Or maybe it’s just that the screenplay was asking him to play a character whose contradictions were impossible.
Leaving aside my reservations, I’m in awe over Blackhat’s strengths—far too many of them to list here, but we should mention its expert pacing and Stuart Dryburgh’s superb cinematography: should he ever drop out of the feature-movie business, I’m sure National Geographic would snap him up for travelogues! Refreshingly for a movie of this kind, neither Mann nor scripter Morgan Davis Foehl offer us any guarantees that any particular character, no matter how much we may have invested ourselves in them, will make it to the closing credits. And, in an era when it seems thriller movies universally use the f-bomb or worse as every other word of dialogue, it was pleasing that this movie was almost entirely devoid of cussing: It was a while before I noticed this, so I may have missed a few examples, but after I’d started counting I spotted nothing more than a single “Shit!”—half-muttered at that.
Because it was such a disaster at the box office, it’s generally assumed that Blackhat is a bit of a stinker. Far from it. Although it has its flaws and I’d question the characterization of its leading man, it’s definitely among the best of the action thrillers I’ve watched over the past twelvemonth.
One oddity: John Ortiz’s character is called Henry Pollack in the credits and even the subtitles, but referred to in the dialogue as Stanley throughout.