After a five year hiatus, iconic action/thriller director Michael Mann returns to the genre with Blackhat. The movie stars Chris Hemsworth (Thor) as Nicholas Hathaway, a convicted hacker chosen by the American government to assist in the chase of cyber terrorists whose latest attacks cost the lives of a lot of people at a power plant in China and also affected the financial market in the United States.
Coming out right after the scandal involving the leaked Sony information by hackers of unknown origin, Blackhat's concept was never as relevant as it is right now. One thing Michael Mann understood while developing this project is that there is no space for old school movie hackers, nerds isolated from the world in a computer typing random keys to generate magical codes and access remotely everything they want. In order to create something more plausible, Blackhat had technical advice coming from former FBI agent Mike Panico and consultancy by "white hackers" Kevin Poulsen and Christopher McKinlay. Those consultants were leaned on not only to say what was and wasn't plausible for a hacker, but also for training the cast in the general aspects of hacking and programing; they actually went as far as creating the lines of code seen in the movie.
One of the challenges Blackhat faces is making hacking interesting enough to work with a conspiracy thriller. In order to intersperse cyber activity between scenes of drama, investigation and action, Mann opted for a very dynamic and modern style of filmmaking. Believe it or not, he uses shaky cam and he does a fantastic job of it. When even the camera seems to be in a hurry, there is always a sense of urgency, as if something is about to happen. This fast pace is hugely important because Blackhat is more than two hours long and the dynamic style ensures not even a flicker of boredom.
Throughout its 135 minutes, Blackhat travels around the world, always with the concept that it is not enough for a hacker to be seated in front of his computer in one room. The film was shot in some exotic landscapes - Jakarta and Hong Kong to name a few. One of Mann’s best decisions was to film on location. He handpicked fantastic locations with terrific results, especially during the action sequences.
One thing you can always expect from a Michael Mann movie? At least one insanely thrilling shooting sequence – at least one. Such is the case for Blackhat. Although a few action scenes are scattered, every time someone fires a weapon, the whole theater jumped. It is simply jaw dropping how Mann does a gun fight. It helps that the whole cast delivers solid performances in those sequences.
Chris Hemsworth plays a part quite different from his usual fare. Nicholas Hathaway is bitter and angry, and he is from the start portrayed as an anti-hero. With a troubled past, Hathaway's explosive temperament is the conduit for some incredibly violent scenes that justify the R rating of the movie. This is definitely not Hemsworth's usual, but this change of scenario played well to his skills and he turns in a solid performance. The character sometimes feels a little confusing though; it is hard to picture such a high profile hacker master mind as a proficient fighter in perfect physical shape and his motivations are not always clear. His relationship with the other characters also felt shallow, especially his love affair with Lien Chen, played by Chinese actress Tang Wei.
Another interesting element - Blackhat portrays Chinese assets as allies of the American Government, and not as the villains. Tang Wei and Wang Leehom play brother and sister, and although they have great chemistry together, her relationship with Nathan Hathaway is nothing but a cliché. In fact, the whole cast, from Viola Davis to Holt McCallany, did an excellent job playing characters that lack authenticity. Although these cliché-ridden characters are more of the same, it doesn't affect the overall product as much as the complete change of focus in the third act.
While the first two acts of the movie follow the process of investigating and hunting the hackers, the third act assumes a completely different direction. It ignores most of the process portrayed in the rest of the story, becoming more character driven but leaving a sense of incompleteness that might be unsatisfying for viewers expecting some closure. Still well worth the watch and great time at the theater.
Blackhat hits theaters January 16th, a month heavily populated by subpar offerings. However, Michael Mann’s long awaited comeback is a welcome surprise for those fearing the January doldrums. It might not be his best movie, but it's a solid effort and an obviously timely subject; it might even be the start of a new trend in action thrillers.