Michael Mann’s interest in computer hackers and the socio-political impact of their illegal activities can be traced as far back as 1995 when he was briefly linked to an adaptation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Count Zero, a science fiction tale involving international espionage via cyberspace. Two decades and several films later, Mann has returned to this subject matter with Blackhat (2015), a thriller about a group of American and Chinese government agents tracking a cyber-criminal determined to disable the international banking network.
The filmmaker certainly has his work cut out for him as historically movies about computer hacking are notoriously inaccurate (Swordfish) or pure flights of fancy (Hackers) with WarGames (1983) having the distinction of being a more realistic portrayal and a bonafide hit as well. Mann’s perchance for meticulous research and his obsession with attention to detail would ensure that at the very least Blackhat would depict the world of computer hacking as realistic as a fictional film would allow. The challenge would be to convey all the requisite tech jargon in an interesting and understandable way that wouldn’t lose the uninitiated while also appealing to those in the know.
After one of their nuclear power plant’s computer network is infiltrated by an unknown hacker causing the coolant pumps to overheat and explode, the Chinese government sends cyber defense expert Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who also enlists the help of his sister (and computer expert) Chen Lien (Tang Wei), to the United States where he compares notes with FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) who dealt with a similar attack. When soy stock is manipulated at the Chicago Mercantile Trade Exchange, Dawai and Barrett figure out that the same Remote Access Tool (RAT) was used as on the power plant.
Dawai reveals that he was the co-architect of the software and that to catch the hacker behind these incidents they need the other person who helped create it – Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). The trouble is that he’s currently serving a 15-year stint in prison. He cuts a deal with the FBI: he’ll help them catch the hacker in exchange for commuting his prison sentence. And so, the assembled team begins to track down the trail the hacker left behind, both electronically and in the real world.
Chris Hemsworth does a solid job as a hardened career computer hacker and handles his tech-heavy jargon well, selling the material in a believable way. He even has a nice scene with Tang Wei where, over dinner, Hathaway reveals a bit about his checkered past, conveying a convict mentality much like James Caan’s character did in the diner scene from Thief (1981). Some may criticize the casting of Hemsworth as he is too good-looking to play a credible hacker but let’s face it, to get Blackhat made at a studio with the budget it had ($70 million), Mann had to cast a recognizable movie star with some clout. Thanks to his recurring role as Thor in the insanely popular Marvel Studios movies, he has that clout.
The romance that develops between Hathaway and Lien initially feels tacked on and unnecessary, like it was a clumsily written plot device to get us emotionally invested in the characters and is not integrated as well as in films like Miami Vice (2006) or Public Enemies (2009), but as the film progresses it starts to feel more natural. This is perhaps Blackhat’s glaring fault and what separates it from Mann’s truly great films. The film lacks the emotional weight that you see in Heat (1995) or The Insider (1999) where the stakes are so high for the individual characters. There is a lot at stake for Hathaway in Blackhat, but it never resonates as strongly in previous Mann films and this may be due to the weaknesses in the screenplay or Hemsworth’s performances or a combination of both. That being said, it is interesting to note how for the first half of the film Hathaway’s attacks on the bad guys are all done from distance, be it from a computer or a gun. It is only once he becomes personally affected that he must deal with his enemies in an up close and personal fashion.
The screenplay written by Morgan Davis Foehl (and revised by Mann) throws around plenty of computer-speak but does it in a way that allows you to follow what’s going on with very little trouble, which is important in a film that hopscotches all over the world, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Malaysia to Indonesia. Unlike pretty much every other fictional film’s depiction of computer hacking, Blackhat gets a lot of the details right, most notably in what comes up on computer screens. Instead of trippy graphics we see screens of computer code that Hathaway and his crew have to sift through and make sense of in order to figure what the bad guys are doing.
Mann is still a master of action as evident in several tense shoot-outs sprinkled throughout the film, including one in a storage yard between Nick and his crew and the bad guys. It is an immersive experience that drops you in the middle of a noisy gun battle with bullets that whiz by and danger lurking around every corner. Blackhat is also beautiful to look at with some truly stunning digital cinematography courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh, from the vast expanse of an airfield that dwarfs Hathaway to the Hong Kong skyline at night. Mann takes us to some exotic locales and immerses us in them in a way that creates an atmospheric experience. Shooting on location creates a real, tangible sense of place that you can’t fake with CGI. It also provides local color and offers a window into a foreign culture.
In lieu of the Sony Corporation hacks in 2014, Blackhat is eerily relevant. The film shows just how vulnerable we all are to having our private, intimate details exposed, from the individual to a high-ranking NSA agent. With the right software and the means, anything can be hacked. Blackhat is part cyber whodunit and part pulse-pounding action thriller. It is too soon to say if this is another masterwork from Mann. Some time, distance and repeated viewings will determine how it ranks in the pantheon of his work. That being said, it is still an impressive effort that demonstrates Mann’s ongoing exploration of his trademark motifs and themes that include protagonists who excel at their respective vocations, brief yet intense romantic relationships, and the role technology plays in their lives. Blackhat also features Mann’s trademark style, but with plenty of substance. It may lack the emotional weight of his previous work and, as a result, may not convert new fans to his particular brand of cinema, but to the faithful the film is pure cinematic catnip.