Michael Mann’s latest thriller, Blackhat,
serendipitously hits theaters this weekend at a time when a justified public has heightened paranoia about compromised cyber security. The spectre of future cyber terrorism is at an unexpected peak worldwide. For Blackhat
, the timing provides an unexpected goldmine in real-life marketing potential for Mann’s most recent directorial effort since his 2009 film, Public Enemies
From the international security dangers posed by North Korea’s presumed hack of Sony Pictures and ISIS sympathizers reportedly tapping into US military Twitter accounts, to home-grown, hi-tech thieves grabbing consumers’ credit card info from shopping mall retailers. The theme of our very safety and security being compromised via the deft downstroke of a computer keyboard seems ready-made for big screen exploitation at this time.
However, the quiet tech and insular intellectual focus of computer hacking hardly lends itself to grand cinematic visuals and compelling big-screen storytelling. After all, tapping away at grimy keyboards and complex dialogue about writing and decrypting computer code is not the stuff of edge-of-your-seat cinematic thrill rides.
This is also familiar ground. It’s been covered multiple times, dating back to the mid 1990’s when films like Hackers
and The Net
tried cashing in on the burgeoning fascination with the then largely unfamiliar territory of the Internet.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, another thematic journey into this well trod terrain might appear banal and repetitive. However, Michael Mann is anything but a “lesser” filmmaker when it comes to bringing a fresh, vibrant eye to what seems the most unremarkable of stories.
, Mann leads us through a wild labyrinthine. As usual, this is a visually stunning journey that leaves us, once again, awestruck by this director’s skill at constructing a compelling thriller–even when it involves something as simple as an innocuous laptop presented potentially as a weapon of mass destruction.
From the very start, Mann utilizes his unique vision as a director to lend a sense of urgency, mystery, and approaching disaster to the film’s opening sequence that sets the tone for the danger he intends to thread throughout this film. This involves a cyber attack on a Chinese nuclear plant which causes an explosive near meltdown. Mann literally plunges the audience into the guts, wiring, and circuitry of the Internet, as a CGI realized manifestation of malware picks up speed and hurtles towards it’s target with all the danger and silent malevolence of a Great White shark homing in on it’s unsuspecting target.
This internet attack is soon followed by another cyber attack. This time, a stock-market jarring run-up on U.S. commodities futures sends federal authorities into a tailspin to discover the perpetrator.
The aforementioned cyber attack in China by an unknown “blackhat” (internet jargon for a hacker with destructive intent) prompts the Chinese government to allow one of it’s American-educated cyberdefense experts, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) to initiate an initially uneasy collaboration with the FBI to find out who is the mysterious electronic saboteur, and how they’re unleashing the online assaults.
Chen convinces the FBI that years before, his former roommate at MIT, Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) actually created the foundation for the computer code or RAT (remote access tool) that the unknown cyber terrorist is using. Reluctantly, the FBI agrees to furlough Hathaway to help find the suspect. However, Hathaway isn’t gamed so easily, demanding a full pardon if he’s able to help break the case. Otherwise, Hathaway is all too happy to return to his cell where he reads deep literature and does near head-stand style pushups for exercise.
“I did the crime, so I do the time”, says Hathaway in one of the film’s more ridiculously cliched lines,” … the time doesn’t do me.”
Reluctantly, the FBI relents and Hathaway and Chen are reunited to work the case like a cyber-warfare Crockett and Tubbs from Mann’s Miami Vice heyday. Both are accompanied by two FBI handlers, led by Carol Barrett ( a wonderful Viola Davis ) who has a skeptical eye on Hathaway and a mean tongue when she needs to use it to intimidate an uncooperative source of information.
However, also along for the ride is Chen younger sister, Chen Lien ( Tang Wei ) a similarly tech savvy engineer who apparently has had romantic eyes for her brother’s American bud for years. It doesn’t take long for both to make a physical and emotional connection; albeit not long after both are attacked and nearly killed by thugs hired by the cyber-terrorist during a wild and superbly violent fight inside an Asian restaurant while awaiting a meeting.
It’s after Hathaway hacks into one of the NSA’s main data systems to try to ferret out the suspect that this thriller truly kicks into high gear; transporting the quartet to a dangerous travelogue of distant locales, such as Hong Kong, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur to unravel the truth. Along the way, the truth they indeed unravel isn’t as tidy or simplistic a bundle as first thought; and the cyber-terrorist’s motive for the intricate attacks he’s unleashed isn’t as complex or high-minded as one might initially believe.
has a number of flaws, middling ones; but flaws nevertheless. The plot line at times becomes too intricate and perhaps a tad too long, shifting the focus of the characters from one McGuffin to another as they track the elusive suspect pulling the strings worldwide. Hemsworth himself is a bit of a liability to the film in his role, in that his handsome and imposing presence, not too mention his frequently uneven attempt at an American accent, seems incongruent with the brainy MIT character he’s supposed to be playing.
Most of the film’s characters are rather one-dimensional save for Viola Davis’ no nonsense FBI agent who eventually reveals some inner scars in one of the film’s more poignant, albeit very brief, moments. Mann’s visual genius gives us a tragic and quite literal glimpse of her inner pain during her ultimate moments in the film.
Despite her heavily accented English, Tang also manages to give her character a variety of layers that she explores as the film evolves. Tang’s Chen Lien is no mere eye candy to follow after Hemsworth’s lead in this film. Dangerous and tragic circumstances force the, at first, young protected sister to become a more powerful presence during the final trackdown. Her verbally intimate moments with Hemsworth in the earlier restaurant scene, as well as her presence moments before a devastatingly shocking on-screen development later in the film; demonstrates her ability to dig deeper into a character that otherwise could have been supremely superficial.
To Mann’s credit, he also eschews falling into an all too easy trope where Chen’s older brother would’ve been threatened or disapproving of Hemsworth’s amorous relationship with his young sister. Chen is somewhat surprised in one scene to see the definitive proof of the pair’s coupling, but Mann’s allows the issue to be dealt with in a refreshingly adult manner as a “non-issue”. It’s only when outside forces come into play that the relationship gets potentially sticky.
However, in the end Blackhat
owes it’s overall punch to Mann’s superb creative vision. The individual parts of Blackhat
taken alone don’t fully function. Some are even laughable in their implausibility. Yet Mann combines his superbly shot set pieces, visual imagery, composition, music, and lighting to create a stunning collage of suspense, thrills, and action.
Yes, action. Few directors can create visceral, realistic mayhem in the manner which Michael Mann is able to accomplish. Blackhat
features several intense shootout scenes, including one sequence that is as gut-wrenchingly powerful, violent, and ear-splittingly frightening as anything I’ve seen since Mann’s astonishing LA street shoot-out in “Heat”.
The final act set piece amid a crowded street parade in Indonesia is wonderfully beautiful in it’s staging, cinematography and yes, in it’s sudden blood-drenched, uber-violent denouement. It is classic Michael Mann.
is like an interesting yet odd tapestry. Alone and apart, some of the pieces may not form much of anything special or even likable. But when woven together under Mann’s masterful hand, the result is truly something remarkable and visually unforgettable.
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