Film Review: Blackhat – The Thinker’s Thriller

Around the time the anti-nuclear The China Syndrome was released in 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor calamity occurred.  Similarly, just days before the opening of Universal’s hacking epic Blackhat, the U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account was hacked by ISIS.  Not to mention the recent Sony saga, wherein unflattering emails, et al, were laid bare and North Korea was blamed for this computer hacking.  Although the DPRK denied these allegations, North Korea’s Internet system then experienced technical difficulties, with computer outages.

The above cyberattacks seem like publicity stunts to ballyhoo Blackhat.  Not even the most inventive Hollywood press agent could conjure up the PR bonanza Universal is enjoying, free of charge, with Blackhat opening January 16 amidst these hack attacks.  But instead of instigating promotions, it seems that director Michael Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl have their proverbial fingers on the pulse — not to mention the digital zeitgeist.

While many action packed blockbusters full of explosions and nonstop violence are merely mindless “entertainment” and escapist flicks, with their two hour-plus stylish, cinematic work Mann and Foehl have created the thinker’s thriller.  In it, Chris Hemsworth, who has played  Thor in the Marvel movie versions of the Norse God of Thunder, proves he can also portray an action hero outside of a superhero costume.  His Nicholas Hathaway, a Dirty Dozen-like computer genius whom [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] authorities release from prison to help them stop an über hacker who has caused a Three Mile Island-like disaster in China.

Along the way Hathaway hooks up with American and Chinese agents and computer whizzes, including Viola Davis as a 9/11-haunted operative, John Ortiz, plus Leehom Wang and Wei Tang as the touching brother-sister team Chen Dawai and Lien Chen.  The sprawling movie moves to distant destinations, with great cinematography of Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia — its location shooting is one of Blackhat’s strong suits.

Another great thing about Blackhat is how the camerawork creatively, imaginatively visualizes computer hacking in a cinematic manner.  At first, given the whole NSA scandal Edward Snowden heroically revealed, as documented in Laura Poitras’ Oscar nominated nonfiction Citizenfour and beyond, this reviewer initially thought Blackhat would be about surveillance, but it’s about that other scourge of the Internet, hacking, instead.

Mann has made socially aware films before, in particular 1999’s The Insider, about an anti-tobacco whistleblower and how 60 Minutes blew his story, plus his 2001 boxer biopic Ali, a film that pulled no punches and took off the gloves when it came to Muhammad Ali’s resistance to the draft, the Vietnam War and racism.  Blackhat’s plot moves in unexpected directions as Hathaway, Lien and company try to unravel the mystery of who did the hacking — and more importantly, why?

Although in its form and content Blackhat is thoughtful (if sometimes ponderous and hard to follow), the movie displays Mann’s filmic flair for action.  The director brings the same cinematic sensibility to Blackhat’s riveting shootouts and so on that Mann infused in 2006’s Miami Vice and 1995’s Heat.  Although, as in his 1992 The Last of the Mohicans, Mann combines action with intelligence.

In that age old tradition of the Western male romancing the “Oriental” female (can you say “Madame Butterfly”?), Hathaway and Lien inexorably couple up.  Although the lovers are filmed in bed two-gether, she is always more or less dressed and beneath blankets or sheets, which seems rather odd, considering the fact that it’s pretty hot outside (apparently hotter than inside).  Perhaps this has something to do with the film’s financing and its release in the world’s biggest movie market, China?  Tang was far sexier in Ang Lee’s 2007 Lust, Caution, which reportedly caused her to have problems with PRC apparatchiks.  The apparent effort to curry favor with Chinese officials and audiences may also explain the depiction of various PRC authorities, officers, agents, etc.

Another curious thing about Blackhat is how the story unfolds in a futuristic world of hi-tech high rises in Hong Kong, etc., but for some reason the characters usually shack up, lie low and hideout in fleabag low rise dives.  The contrasts are stark.

Nevertheless, by tackling a ripped-from-the-headlines crisis Mann has made the tried and true thriller genre timely and cutting edge, as well as sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat exciting.  Welcome to the not-so-brave new world of hacking.

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