Never let it be said that director Michael Mann doesn’t know how to catch your eye and hold it. His new movie Blackhat begins with a view of Earth from nighttime orbit. Mann’s camera dives from the night sky toward a planet spangled with golden lights. We zoom to and through the towers of Hong Kong to a nuclear power plant, then into the control room—to dive again, into the works of the plant’s computer. We swoop among the components as we did the streets outside—one of the movie’s recurring visual metaphors is how much the circuits of a computer and the streets of a teeming city look alike. Finally we come to rest near a glowing red dot that our eye tells us doesn’t belong there.
Indeed it doesn’t. It’s a bit of malicious coding that has hacked its way through the plant’s firewalls. Within seconds it’s done its mischief, leading to a cooling system failure, overheated fuel rods, an explosion and a frantic struggle to contain a meltdown
Almost simultaneously, a similar hack on Wall Street results in a sudden run-up in commodities futures, with some person or persons unknown making a sudden killing (of the financial variety). Meanwhile, back in China, cyber-security officer Capt. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is assigned to liaise with the FBI in the person of Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) in an effort to track down the mysterious “blackhat” hacker and figure out what his or her real game is.
Chen recognizes a fragment of the blackhat’s code from his student days at MIT: it’s a bit of prank coding developed by his then-roommate Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). Hathaway can’t be the blackhat, since he’s safely ensconced in federal prison, midway through a 15-year sentence for Robin Hood-style hacking into some predatory banks’ databases. Chen insists that Hathaway is essential to solving the case, and Hathaway boldly sets his price: If he fails, it’s back to the slammer, but if he succeeds, the feds will commute his sentence.
The introduction of this mossy trope is like a skyrocket warning of danger ahead. Sure enough, this cliché turns out to be only the first of many; worse yet, it’s an early indicator that eventually, Blackhat is more or less going to stop making any sense at all.
The movie does this sooner rather than later. The ripped-from-today’s-headlines theme of anonymous cyberwarfare is not matched by the developments in Blackhat’s script. Mann has often directed his own screenplays, but this time he entrusted the writing to one Morgan Davis Foehl, whose previous work consists of assistant-editor gigs on a handful of TV series and two Adam Sandler movies. Something persuaded Mann that Foehl was ready for his close-up, but he guessed wrong. Foehl may have, as studio publicity suggests, based his script on Mann’s years of research into the subject, but Blackhat plays more like a study in the proven elements of blockbuster action franchises like the Mission: Impossible movies or the adventures of Jason Bourne and James Bond. (Is it in fact the opener in a proposed new franchise, Nick Hathaway, Cyber-Detective?) We get the usual itinerary of instantaneous, hassle-free travel—Beijing to Washington to L.A. to Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur—and there’s even what can only be called a Bond girl: Chen’s super-hot sister Lien (Wei Tang), a computer genius who serves mainly as a sidekick-cum-hookup for Hathaway.
And naturally, there’s the obligatory series of shootouts with assorted villainous henchman. Mann understands that high-body-count gunplay is a helluva lot sexier that watching people hunched over keyboards staring into incomprehensible lines of code. And in the end (spoiler alert!) the mystery turns out to be little more than Auric Goldfinger’s 1963 plot to rob Fort Knox; when the supervillain finally turns up, we half expect him to say, “No, Mr. Hathaway, I expect you to die!”
Fortunately, Mann invests this folderol with his riveting, urgent style. The movie is like a ride through town with a Grand Prix racer—we know the streets, but it’s exciting seeing them like this. And, perhaps not incidentally, Hemsworth deftly nominates himself to be the next James Bond, when Daniel Craig finally gets tired of the role.