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New Release Review - Blackhat

A hacker is freed from prison to help find the man responsible for a series of cyber attacks.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Michael Mann

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang


Should an encyclopedia of great movies involving hackers ever be published it will probably be roughly as thick as a volume on great Italian war victories. There's something inherently uncinematic about the world of cyber crime, chiefly because its protagonists spend their time tapping away at keyboards while chowing down fistfuls of Cheetos, guzzling Mountain Dew from one bottle while urinating into another empty bottle. Thankfully Michael Mann is as concerned with realism as the Dardenne brothers are with car chases; hacking is simply a macguffin to wind a loose plot around while Mann gets on with doing what he does best, delivering slick thrills in his own trademark manner.
The movie admittedly starts on shaky ground as Mann delivers an elaborate visualisation of code infiltrating a computer network like water filling a reservoir. At first glance it seems Mann is yet another out of touch filmmaker struggling to get down with the kids, as he appears to be taking his visual cues from Tron. It's only as the film develops, and we learn the exact details of the villain's evil plan, that Mann's visual motif here makes perfect sense, making physical the threat posed by cyber criminals. Mann 1 Cynics 0.
The malicious code causes a meltdown at a Chinese power plant. Unable to retrieve the hard drives from the plant due to contamination, Chinese agent Dawai (Wang) is forced to work alongside FBI agent Carol (Davis), whose team have gotten hold of code used in a similar attack on the prices of Soy stocks. At Dawai's insistence, his old college roommate, hacker Nick (Hemsworth), is sprung from a 15 year sentence for cyber crimes to assist in taking down the unknown antagonist.
After the disappointments of recent Mann snoozefests (Ali, Miami Vice, Public Enemies), Blackhat finds the Chicago auteur returning to the hyper-realism of his best work (Thief, Manhunter, LA Takedown) and all the Mann staples are present and correct. We have a protagonist highly accomplished in his chosen field, grudgingly growing to respect an antagonist he won't encounter before the final reel; a romantic relationship placed in jeopardy by the former; and, of course, neon-lit skylines. Lots of neon-lit skylines. Seriously; LOTS! Hemsworth is frequently framed against glowing shallow focus backgrounds that suggest he's entered some sort of Tron-like cyber world, be they pulsing computer monitors, airport departure boards or Asian tower blocks.
In an age when Hollywood is desperate to attract the family dollar, sexual tension is something we rarely see in big budget movies today, but Blackhat is unabashed in that regard. As soon as Hemsworth's hunky hacker and Wei Tang's sultry cyber sleuth lay eyes on each other they immediately engage in some heavy eye-undressing, and it's not long before they're rolling in some metaphorical hay; on top of a skyscraper of course - with a neon background! This quickly escalating relationship has drawn guffaws from many critics, but it makes perfect sense to this reviewer. After all, Hemsworth was just voted People magazine's sexiest man alive, and nobody would kick Wei Tang out of bed for hogging the sheets. Of course these two are going to get it on!
A cynic might say Blackhat is a parody of a Michael Mann movie, but if you watch any movies that have attempted to ape his style you'll realise how difficult to replicate it is. Blackhat is more a case of a filmmaker paying homage to his own past, with Mann practically rewriting scenes from earlier works (a speech delivered by Hemsworth about surviving prison time is straight out of Thief). There are a couple of shootouts that are the equal of those in LA Takedown and its glossy remake Heat, but with an added realism thanks to Mann's use of digital video, something that hindered his recent films but works perfectly with this material. With practically everyone shooting on digital now, Hollywood has caught up with Mann, and with the murkiness of his visuals no longer a distraction, we can appreciate his stunning compositions, all delivered in his customary unpretentious throwaway manner (a quick shot involving some pillars reflected in a pool of water might end up as the most striking composition of 2015).
Blackhat flopped at the US box office, taking just $8 million against a $70 million budget. Critics stateside were far from favourable in their reviews, but European reviewers seem to be embracing Mann's film. Don't be put off by the negative reviews and the film's unpromising cyber crime plot; as Edward de Bono would point out, that's Black Hat thinking. 




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