For a small sub-set of pop culture nerds, a new Michael Mann film is something to celebrate. His style and themes have a lean specificity to them: over moody cinematography and electronic music, Mann crafts thrillers about intelligent, handsome men who are defined by their personal code, not their actions (although almost all of them are violent). All his characters, even the ostensible villains, are taciturn, collected, and above all competent (e.g. Heat, Miami Vice, and Collateral). There is a bit of wish-fulfillment to this kind of masculinity; Mann traffics in rugged individualists who could also appear in a GQ catalog. Mann’s latest is Blackhat, a procedural about terrorist hacker and the good guys who try and stop him. By approaching the material with deathly seriousness, Mann and his actors heighten its overall silliness, which is part of the fun.
A mysterious hacker causes a meltdown in a Chinese nuclear reactor, and we know this because the camera zooms in, following the hacker’s computer through a labyrinth of processors and servers until it reaches the facility. An expert on cybercrime in the Chinese military named Chen (Leehom Wang) recognizes the hacker’s code, and asks two experts to help with the manhunt: Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang) who works in the private sector, and Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) who is in the middle of a long prison sentence.
Hathaway is also hacker – while he and Chen were roommates at MIT, they created the part of the code used in the meltdown – so a reluctant FBI Agent (Viola Davis) releases Hathaway from jail. The conditions are simple: if Hathaway can stop the bag guy, the government will commute his sentence. What follows is a globe-trotting chase, full of gunfire and speedboats, with Hathaway always one step behind.
When the average person thinks of an outlaw hacker, they probably do not imagine People Magazine’s most recent choice for Sexiest Man Alive. Still, the casting choice is genius, albeit in a sneaky way: if the audience can accept Hemsworth, then the sillier choices and plot points will be easier to swallow. There is a scene where Hathaway uses a simple phishing technique against an NSA employee who should know better, and entire sequence where Hemsworth – a tall, muscular blonde – can wander through an Asian country seemingly without detection. Like I said, this is all preposterous, to the point where the hacker stuff is almost immaterial.
What matters more to Mann is the allure of danger, and how that dangers can influence human behavior. On one level, Mann sees danger as the ultimate aphrodisiac: it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Hathaway fucks Lien after they share a scrape with death. The more potent allure, however, is how danger sharpens one’s sense of morality (or lack thereof). Hathaway is quick to explain how his crimes never hurt ordinary people, so he feels white-hot moral outrage against the hacker who does it for the wrong reason. In the tradition of Mann heroes, Hemsworth plays it cool, although there are flashes of passionate anger beneath the surface.
The script by Morgan Davis Foehl oscillates between scenes of implausible technology and low-tech spy craft. In order to catch the bad guy’s lackeys, for example, Hathaway follows their GPS path to the one spot they overlap. This need to flush out a clue in the physical world is how Mann creates his action sequences (there’s probably a version of this story where it’s just guys sitting at computers). Mann has patience with his action choreography: he establishes the space so the audience can see the battle lines. The best example of this occurs at around the halfway point, where an elite police force enters a curved concrete hallway and exchanges fire with the terrorists on the other side. We see how the bad guys can anticipate the move of the good guys, so the suspense is not over when the good guys will die, but how. Hathaway does not carry a gun, so Hemsworth’s strongest action scene is where he dispatches some goons in a Korean restaurant with what’s available to him. In terms of adapting to one’s surroundings, Hathaway clearly learned from the limited resources of prison life.
An important sub-plot of Blackhat is the cooperation between the Chinese and American governments. With A-list star and a budget of $80 million, I’m curious whether Mann filmed parts of Blackhat so that it would play well to Chinese audiences (there are some strange dubbing issues that even suggest there are two versions of expository dialogue). Even with those concessions, Mann purists will find something to admire here. Still, fans and non-fans alike may struggle with Blackhat’s two hour plus running time. Mann’s pacing is uneven, so while parts of the film glide effortlessly, there are other moments where he seems to add filler (e.g. gratuitous shots of hunky weariness). There is an economic thriller somewhere here, except Mann again must first indulge his masculine ideals, and it’s hard to blame him.