Action Blackhat

Film Review: Blackhat

January 16, 2015Ben Mk


Hack to the future...

Given the recent spate of cyber-attacks on corporations and government agencies, it's either very good or very bad timing for a film depicting law enforcement's battles with such criminals. Whatever the case may be, that's exactly the premise behind the movie Blackhat, a globetrotting action-thriller from director Michael Mann that has Chris Hemsworth and an international cast (including How to Get Away with Murder's Viola Davis and Lust, Caution's Wei Tang) doing just that: going up against a nefarious cyber-criminal organization seemingly intent on unleashing anarchy on a grand scale.

   

Like last Summer's Transformers: Age of Extinction, Blackhat has our heroes darting all over Asia in an attempt to beat the bad guys at their own game. Only this time, it's not the threat of giant, sentient machines that they're facing, but rather blackhat hackers who have used software exploits — specifically, a Remote Access Tool (otherwise known as a RAT) — to initiate a core meltdown at the Chai Wan nuclear reactor in Hong Kong and create stock market chaos at the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago.

Hemsworth plays a convicted carder named Nick Hathaway, a blackhat hacker himself, who's sprung from prison by his good friend and former MIT roommate, Captain Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), in order to assist with the FBI and the Chinese government's joint investigation, spearheaded by special agent Carol Barrett (Davis). Along the way, Nick becomes romantically involved with Dawai's sister, Lien (Tang), a brilliant network engineer recruited for the task by her brother, as they follow the breadcrumbs of bits and bytes from Los Angeles all the way to Hong Kong, Perak and Jakarta.

Viewers will find that despite the filmmakers' commitment to technical authenticity, Blackhat still falls victim to many of the same tropes as the majority of Hollywood hacker films. Need to recover some files that would otherwise be lost forever to the ether? The NSA conveniently happens to have a tool called "Black Widow" (a nod to Hemsworth's other gig, as Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) that can reconstruct disappeared data in the span of a few hours. Or what about the classic "camera move through the computer screen until we're inside the computer" trick? The film employs that little visual motif as well — albeit quite effectively — zooming down to the microscopic level on a couple of occasions to help visualize and make more exciting the exact moment at which malicious code infiltrates an operating system.

But if there's one criticism that deserves to be leveled against the script by first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, it's that it suffers from a dire lack of tension, primarily because the movie's villains feel like nothing more than an afterthought.

Heat had Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley; Collateral had Tom Cruise's sociopathic hitman, Vincent; but here, the villains are practically generic — a brutish band of goons (led by The Dark Knight's Ritchie Coster) taking orders from a big bad who doesn't even reveal himself until late in the film's final act. And even then, the results are disappointingly anticlimactic, with the strategy and ultimate motive behind the hack attacks being both overly complex and surprisingly dull at the same time.

The film does deserve points, though, for not resorting to making a stereotypical foreign national the mastermind behind its crimes, as one might expect for a story that takes place largely in Asia. And fans of Mann's previous films will be glad to hear that the director's trademark firefight sequences are as genuinely thrilling, gritty and visceral as they've ever been.

That being said, we're still left to contend with Hemsworth's portrayal of the movie's principle protagonist, whose decidedly Johnny Utah vibe very nearly threatens to derail the credibility of the whole endeavor at every turn. Hemsworth does possess the charm and charisma (not to mention the biceps) to carry the film — no doubt about that — but viewers will need to suspend their disbelief if they're to buy him as the elite hacker the movie makes him out to be, which is essentially how moviegoers should approach the film as well.

The Bottom Line Is Blackhat a return to form for director Michael Mann? There are points in the movie that will have you believing so. But overall, the film flirts with the boundaries of plausibility, often sacrificing coherence in an effort to deliver cookie-cutter high-tech thrills, an undercooked romantic subplot and bombastic action set-pieces. When Blackhat is at its best, it's escapist popcorn fun, but be forewarned: its connection to reality is tenuous.  Ben Mk





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