At some point during my viewing of “Blackhat”, I began to focus on how it looks rather than what it is about. As a ‘cyber-thriller’, it surely has an interesting topic which has been more relevant along with those frequent computer hacking incidents around the global community, but it does not tell you anything new about computer hacking, and its thriller plot often suffers from implausibility and bland characterization. The movie is problematic to say the least, but it comes with distinctive style and mood, and I enjoyed it just for being a typical case of “style over substance”.
The movie begins with the chilly opening sequence which may take some of you back to the memories of “Tron” (1982). After the movie smoothly moves from the overview of countless Internet networks covering the Earth to the inner workings of the mainframe in a nuclear power plant in Chai Wan, Hong Kong, we see the hacking process which is about to be initiated by a mysterious hacker. Once a loophole is found somewhere in the mainframe, all needed to be done is pressing the enter key, and then a computer virus is instantly, and insidiously, spread throughout the mainframe as we see the rapid streams of electronic lights passing through an intricate system of circuits.
After this hacking results in a disaster as serious as the Fukushima incident, the Chinese government immediately starts an investigation, and the US government comes to collaborate with the Chinese government in this investigation after the same hacker drives the Mercantile Trade Market in Chicago into full panic through causing a sudden sharp rise in soy market price. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a hot-shot captain of the cyber warfare unit of the Chinese military, recognizes that the hacker’s virus is originated from the one he and his old collegemate Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) created just for fun a long time ago, and he requests FBI special Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) the temporary release of his friend, who has been incarcerated since he was found guilty of his computer crime 4 years ago. Hathaway, a tough guy who does not conform easily to authority as shown from his minor prank on prison officers, agrees to help the investigation, but he has one demand; if he succeeds in catching the hacker in question, he should get a full pardon for his previous crime. As soon as his demand is accepted, Hathaway joins Chen’s investigation team members including Chen Lien (Wei Tang), a computer network engineer who is recruited by her brother as someone he can trust under any circumstance, and Deputy US Marshal Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany), whose main job is monitoring Hathaway during the team’s global search for any trace or clue which can lead them to their opponent.
In many scenes, they often look into computer monitors or type on keyboards for getting anything useful for their investigation, and I must point out that this is not particularly exciting to watch. Several technical terms like malware, proxy server, and RAT (remote administration tool) are frequently mentioned as the characters explain to others (and us) on what is going on or what they are going to do next, but you will not get much understanding on their computer work. In one brief scene, a character looks at those complicated arrays of computer codes on the screen for a while and then gets frustrated for some reason, but we do not know why until it is explained later.
Anyway, the heroes of the director Michael Mann’s films are always men of actions, so Hathaway and the other characters he works with get themselves into a number of action scenes as it turns out that their bad guy has a lot more than his computer. When he and Lien come across a trouble at a Korean restaurant in LA, Hathaway shows that he has the other particular sets of skills besides his programming/hacking skills. Both Hathaway and other team members want to get their job done as professionals, and they are not easily deterred from their mission even when they come to face more dangers and difficulties as they approach closer to their target bit by bit. While they run or move around many different places over the world, Mann keeps his film rolling even when the screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl stumbles or trudges. Although his raw digital camera shooting makes several scenes feel a bit too rough, the cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh wonderfully captures the beautiful night skyline of Hong Kong on his camera from time to time, and he also makes good use of various locations. The climax sequence, which is unfolded in the middle of a big local festival held in Jakarta, is visibly awkward in its editing especially when Hathaway finally confronts his opponent (it feels as if the actors had been shot separately in different places), but this sequence looks visually impressive none the less as Hathaway wades into the endless stream of crowd moving in the opposite direction.
Although some of them are not very convincing, the actors in the film are fine on the whole. Probably because of “Thor” (2011) and other associated Marvel Comics movies, Chris Hemsworth is not that believable as a smart, intelligent hacker, but at least he looks as moody and tough as required whenever that is necessary. Leehom Wang is solid as Hathaway’s friend and supporter, and Viola Davis, a wonderful actress who is always good at making seemingly thankless roles look interesting, fills her character with a quiet but authoritative sense of responsibility. In case of Wei Tang, the relationship developed between her character and Hemsworth’s feels forced without much spark, and that is one of the least successful parts in the film despite Tang’s good efforts.
“Blackhat” feels overlong in its uneven narrative which may test your tolerance of implausibility, and there are parts which do not work as well as intended, but this is not as messy and boring as “Ali” (2001), which remains to be an aimless misfire even after Mann gave us his director’s cut. Compared to “The Insider” (1999) and “Collateral” (2004), “Blackhat” is not the highpoint of Mann’s career, but it is an interestingly flawed work which shows that he is still sticking to his own style as continuing to hone it as before.