Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Leehom Wang
Watch Blackhat online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Sit at a computer. Type really quickly. It doesn’t matter what you type – sonnets, quotes from Red Dwarf, it can be complete gibberish – as long as you type it as fast as humanly possible. That’s what movies call hacking, a bugbear to US security forces and plot device for bad guys alike. Blackhat, Michael Mann’s latest computer-driven actioner, at the very least dispels with these stereotypes.
Ironically, for a subject matter so modern, the plot is as dated as they come: Chris Hemsworth plays Hathaway, a convicted hacker who is released from jail by the FBI to track down the keyboard-basher behind a nuclear power plant meltdown. Because in the world of hacking, only a hacker can out-hack another hacker. It’s straight out of the textbook for a cyber-thriller – a term that people stopped using in the 1990s.
Sure enough, we discover that Chinese agent Chen (Leehom) – who is working with Viola Davis’ hard-nosed FBI woman, Carol Bennett – is an old friend of Hathaway’s. And that he has – yes – a beautiful sister (Wei Tang), who doesn’t mind her men coming with a bit of jail grit on their shoulder.
Quicker than the film can cut to a sinister bad guy hitting the “Enter” button dramatically, you’ve already guessed where everything is heading: the script, by Morgan Davis Foehl (who worked as an Assistant Editor on the Adam Sandler film, Click), is Mann on wheels, efficiently paced right down to the big-bulleted shootouts and butch final showdown.
The result is an underwhelming human drama, as Hemsworth is given little room to load the charisma that made Thor so engaging. But that doesn’t stop Michael Mann from making a Microsoft-sized impact on his audience: for all of its shortcomings on the page, on the screen, Blackhat feels like the Miami Vice director has finally finished booting up. In an era where film-makers and film lovers cherish the nostalgic glow of 35mm, Mann has ruthlessly stripped away celluloid from his style. His last film – Public Enemies, a long six years ago – saw that look clash with its period setting. Here, in the topical shadow of Edward Snowden, Sony’s email hack and Theresa May’s Snoopers Charter, it’s more akin to someone ripping the protective screen off their iPhone: Mann burns his contrasting lights and darks into the pristine screen with a new, visceral immediacy.
The director’s rule over aesthetic has never been cleaner – or grainier – as he expands his cinematic horizons away from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. His digital work has always felt like it took place in an alternate universe to traditional cinema; a hyperreal simulation not unlike a live-action TRON. Blackhat sees him realise that completely with a bravura opening sequence that dives right into the computer: we witness the hacking of the power station take place in real-time, as code rushes through cables, pixels corrupting pixels. It’s like watching De Niro’s precisely coordinated heist from Heat, but rendered in thrillingly microscopic detail. Outside of this virtual realm, the real world seems just as cool and rigid – shots of glossy skyscrapers jutting into the dark sky become shiny chips on a motherboard. Occasionally, it’s a little too cold.
Blackhat is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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