“Blackhat” gets the world of computer crime out of the geeky environs of dark, unhealthy rooms littered with food wrappers and oddball techies flings it into the fast-paced, international thriller world of Jason Bourne and James Bond.
Its muscular hero is played by none other than Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, who can stride into situations where everyone else is scratching heads, click on a keyboard or smartphone, figure out codes, malware or IP addresses in a matter of moments, then spring into rough-and-tumble action.
Cornered in an L.A. Koreatown bar by three gangsters, he batters them senseless. Caught up in firefights in Hong Kong or close-quarters combat in Indonesia, Hemsworth as convicted hacker Nicholas Hathaway is an action hero with blackhat’s ruthless amorality and an engineer’s savvy. Yes, real guys do Tech.
From his very first film “Thief,” Mann has always excelled at procedurals set in shadowy, often criminal worlds populated by clever, desperate people depicted with authentic albeit heightened realism. With “Blackhat” he again creates a striking mosaic of thrilling action with a quickening pace wrapped up in jargon-heavy dialogue about computerized infrastructures and vicious malware that the movie expects to go over the heads of nearly all viewers.
Made even more timely with the now infamous Sony hack that sent the movie world and international corporations reeling last month, “Blackhat” is a rare January movie offering that is smart and sexy even if it fails to expand the layman’s real comprehension of this brave new tech world we all find ourselves in.
(As I write these words I am over 60 minutes holding on a phone call to straighten out the latest “security codes” my bank has put between me and online access to my accounts. Ah, progress.)
Like action flicks of old, where a movie rounds up bad guys to invade, defeat or track down even badder dudes — “Blackhat” springs a badass convict from federal prison on a furlough since he’s the only guy in the world — really, the only guy? — who can hunt down a dangerous cybercrime network.
Since the network hit both China — a nuclear power plant’s cooling system to cause a near meltdown — and the U.S. — Chicago’s Mercantile Trade Exchange to send soy futures skyrocketing — both countries join forces to pursue the cyber criminals at the urging of a single FBI agent, Carol Barrett (Viola Davis).
China sends digital expert and army captain Chen Dawai (singer-actor Wang Leehom), who insists his former MIT roommate and buddy Nicholas gets sprung to join the team. Since Dawai brings along his comely sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei of “Lust, Caution”), everything fits into place with the two guys making it a buddy movie and Tang Wei providing the love interest.
Less predictable is a far-flung plot that transports you from L.A. to Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and Jakarta. Morgan Davis Foehl’s intelligent though mostly unintelligible screenplay neatly incorporates the world of cyber interconnectedness into its whirlwind global tour, creating real puzzles as to where the invisible attacks are coming from and how three guys taking random strolls through Hong Kong without ever contacting anyone can nevertheless be receiving orders and data.
Even the decision to stage so much of the story in Hong Kong, evoking memories of so many action movies produced in that city but also its Mira Hotel where Edward Snowden infamously holed up to divulge U.S. security probes of its citizens, is fortuitous.
Hemsworth undoubtedly will sell tickets and his prowess at kickboxing comes in handy here. But he is unconvincing as a blackhat hacker. Too much of a white hat actually. And when he mumbles about codes and malware he seems to be reading lines.
Tang Wei has no such problems even though she is working in a second language. Hers is an arresting, confident and vibrant presence on screen, as the movie gradually moves her into the co-star slot opposite Hemsworth.
The good guys here — including Davis, Wang and Holt McCallany as a deputy U.S. Marshall supposedly monitoring Hathaway — all dress smartly and run like clockwork while the baddies — among others Ritchie Coster and Yorick Van Wageningen — dress slovenly and wear scruffy beards and angry looks. I guess some things never change in movies even those trying so hard to be up-to-the-minute.
Occasional sequences make you wince over the heroes’ lack of concern about consequences. Why force a face-to-face with baddies at a crowded event where scores of people are likely to get hurt?
Production values are superb in several countries. Things fly by pretty fast but if you have time to think at all you do wonder how all the travel arrangements happen in the bat of an eye and how the minute everyone hits ground all plans and roles are already in place.
Logic isn’t always present but this is a slick, highly entertaining film that benefits from Mann’s signature obsession with detail and stylish set pieces. His crew — D.P. Stuart Dyburgh, designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and composers Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross and Leo Ross — get high marks for contributions that propel the story ever forward. Downside to the cinematography are the early scenes where Mann and Dyburgh try to view a cyber-attack from inside at the micro level, all too reminiscent of the headache-inducing scenes in the first “Tron” movie.
Usually January brings toxic American films to theaters, films that are more or less dumped from the preceding year or filler to keep distribution arms busy prior to spring. So bravo to Mann and Universal Pictures for bringing out such an enjoyable first film of the new year. Let others follow in their wake.
Opens: January 16, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: A Legendary Pictures and Forward Pass production
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick Van Wageningen, Wang Leehom
Director: Michael Mann
Screenwriter: Morgan Davis Foehl
Producers: Thomas Tull, Michael Mann, John Jashni
Executive producers: Eric McLeod, Alex Garcia
Director of photography: Stuart Dyburgh
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross, Leo Ross
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Visual effects supervisors: John Nelson, Philip Brennan
Editors: Joe Walker, Stephen Rivkin, Jeremiah O’Driscoll
R rating, 125 minutes