In the opening scene of Michael Mann’s ‘cybertech’ thriller, Blackhat, the CGI enabled camera sweeps inside the wires, cables and ports of a nuclear power plant supercomputer. Blips and beeps of data are soon overcome by something else, feeding itself through the virtual membranes of the computer and taking control.
We’ve just witnessed a cyber attack in all its coded glory. Films used to penetrate our psychosis by playing on fears of bodily infection, sickness and viral contamination. Today, the new global horror is hacking and its rapid, anonymous repercussions. It’s a bold, prescient way to start a film, but one that doesn’t sustain itself over the course of two hours.
After this initial attack on a Chinese nuclear facility, the local government enlists Captain Dawai (Leehom Wang) to study the cyber attack and find its originator. With the help of the United States Justice Department and headstrong operative Carol Barret (Viola Davis), Dawai pushes for the release of heavy computer hacker Mark Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), currently serving an 18 year sentence in a Supermax prison for his own online dalliances with cyber terrorism. Intelligent, driven and built like Thor, Hemsworth negotiates his temporary furlough into a permanent vacation if and when he catches the big villain.
Also along for the ride — which turns into a massive globetrotter from Hong Kong to Malaysia then Indonesia — is Dawai’s tech-savvy private sector little sister, Lien (Wei Tang) and the agent (Holt McCallany) responsible for Hathaway’s reigns.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Mann (best known for masterpieces Heat and The Insider), the characteristics of his style are all over Blackhat. Fully integrated into using Hi Def digital equipment now, the images have a crisp, fluorescent edge to them. The way he stages certain scenes, with the night-time sky perched magnificently behind his characters, is terrific to behold. There are three action set pieces where the two opposing forces of law and disorder meet in a unique landscape and bullets fly. No director emphasizes the sound and propulsive feel of automatic weapons quite like Mann, and he again displays that mastery here.
Yet despite the visual flourishes, Blackhat fails to reach a cohesive whole. As the strong tough guy, Hemsworth embodies another handsome lone wolf in the extensive universe of Michael Mann protagonists. Sharply dressed, deadly and one who speaks without using contractions; think Tom Cruise in Collateral, Robert DeNiro in Heat and Johnny Depp in Public Enemies. Bad guys to say the least, but fully formed anti-heroes we almost begin to root for. Hemsworth displays none of that charisma in a single-note performance.
Handled even more clumsily is the relationship that forms between Hathaway and fellow techie Lien, portrayed by the beautiful Wei Tang. Included to add gravity to the consequences of their situation, neither one infuses enough chemistry or interest to make their quick bonding effective.
Even more astounding is the fact that any law enforcement agency would allow these two to be front and center during all tactical missions involving SWAT teams and heavy armory. It’s a narrative blunder that immediately destroys any credibility established, especially after Blackhat relies on some quite intelligent methods to connect the dots from one plot device to the next.
Eerily ripped from the headlines of current events, Blackhat succinctly translates just how frightening and real the next 50 years may be when any institution or supposed “secure” site can be ripped and used against itself for ominous reasons. If only the living and breathing inhabitants within this film were as real.
The film opens wide in theaters across Dallas today.