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With: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom
Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl
Directed by: Michael Mann
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language
Running Time: 133
Date: 01/16/2015
IMDB

Blackhat (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hack Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The career of Michael Mann is a curious one. He is held in high esteem, still, for much of his past work. He works slowly and sporadically, having completed just 11 feature films in the last 35 years. For those in the know, Manhunter (1986) is still his best film, although it's still a cult item and not widely acknowledged. Others prefer Heat (1995), but I have seen that movie twice and I maintain that it's quite a bit shallower than its three-hour running time and impressive cast might suggest. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) is very similar; people seem to think it has much more resonance than it actually does.

His The Insider (1999) is another of his better films, and it received consensus approval with Oscar nominations and critical acclaim. I saw both highbrow and lowbrow critics arguing over the merits of both Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006), neither of which I liked much. I gave both Ali (2001) and Public Enemies (2009) favorable reviews at the time, but find that they have evaporated from my memory.

What does all this say? It says that Mann is a director of surfaces and deceptions. (Realizing this, Manhunter becomes even better.) His films are always a battle between content and the presentation of that content, and the battle is always raging. His films are never completely fixed in stone; depending on how the light hits them, they can be seen by different viewers in different ways at different times. I tend to bristle when a film puffs itself up and pretends to be more profound than it really is, but if a film knows its limitations and does the best it can, then it may earn my admiration.

Blackhat is such a film. Its story is preposterous, asking viewers to make many leaps in judgment and logic, but Mann's presentation of the story is exactly right. He is frequently compared with the film noir directors of old, where moods and emotions generally won out over story logic, and Blackhat is perhaps the first of Mann's films in which he has found that balance. His camera dreamily captures the spaces between the story, the heat or chill of the day or night, the feelings of hunger or exhaustion, or simply boredom, while waiting for the bad guy to make a move. (Spy stuff isn't always about chases and shootouts.)

Chris Hemsworth stars as Nicholas Hathaway, an expert computer hacker currently serving a jail sentence. (In the film's unrelated prologue, he has used a smuggled phone to add money to his fellow prisoners' commissary cards.) An international bad guy has stolen $74 million by artificially manipulating the soy prices on the stock market. He has done this with two different sets of code: one to get into the system and open a back door, and another to do the dirty work. FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) is given permission to call in a special Chinese agent, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom). Chen Dawai then calls in his old roommate, Hathaway, who co-wrote the back-door code with him. Hathaway is then released from prison, but given an ankle bracelet.

Chen's pretty sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), also comes along, and eventually becomes a romantic interest for Hathaway, which seemed to bother many of the audience members I was with. Teamed with a federal marshal (Holt McCallany) whose job is to keep an eye on Hathaway, this group heads all around the world to try to nab the bad hacker. Their adventure brings them into restaurant fights, shootouts, and even a quick trip into a recently melted-down nuclear reactor to grab a piece of computer hardware; they have only eight minutes before they're cooked alive.

The showdown takes place in a crowded square in the middle of a parade in Jakarta, and even though guns are fired and enemies fight, the parade simply continues, unfazed. No one scatters or ducks. But Mann knows that the walls of people, similarly costumed, add another element to the showdown, a kind of uneasy shimmering at the edges. It's the kind of scene that the majority of viewers are going to laugh at, because they are trained to take it literally. But a few others who are capable of looking beyond the literal, may find a certain poetry to the scene.

When film noir started, around the mid-1940s, there was no specific decision to create a genre; it was simply an attempt by certain filmmakers to capture a certain mood at that time in America. Blackhat certainly deals with some of our pressing issues today, the fact that computers have the power to break in just about anywhere, steal just about anything. It's possible that we as a people have never been more unsafe. Even if the story is ridiculous, this underlying dread, and Mann's way of visualizing it, make Blackhat worth considering, rather than dismissing.

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