Blackhat, film review: Chris Hemsworth stars in an old-fashioned thriller with a bit of byte

(15) Michael Mann, 133 mins Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom
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The Independent Culture

There is a revealing scene late on in Michael Mann's Blackhat. One of the main characters has just seen someone close to them murdered. "We gotta grieve later" is the instruction from a colleague. Mann is contemporary US cinema's closest equivalent to Howard Hawks. In his films, as in Hawks' old Hollywood classics, very little time is wasted in overt expressions of emotion.

Protagonists are defined by their professionalism – by how they act, not by how they feel. Hawks famously accused Gary Cooper's marshal in High Noon of "running around like a headless chicken". This is behaviour that isn't tolerated in the worlds of Hawks or Mann. Their heroes and villains invariably show the same self-discipline. They don't get attached – as Robert De Niro's thief famously puts in Mann's Heat (1995) – to "anything you're not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner".

What makes Mann such a fascinating but paradoxical film-maker is his grandiose approach toward material that often seems utterly formulaic. Blackhat is full of scenes that are familiar from other thrillers – the chase on the subway, the shoot-out in the sewers, the gun battle on the freeway. Mann stages them in his customary Wagnerian fashion. His action sequences aren't like anyone else's, though. Even as the bullets are flying, he somehow finds time to pay attention to the streamlined shape of a car or the design of a building. His fight sequences have a ritualistic quality. His characters behave as if they know they are playing pre-ordained roles and no one shows surprise whether they live or die.

There is a bravura overture to Blackhat in which the camera races through a vast maze of fibre-optic cables, showing a computer system corrupted by malware. The idea itself isn't that original. Krzysztof Kieślowski's (pre-digital age) Three Colours Red (1994) begins with a similarly dizzying trick shot of a telephone call in which a woman lifts a receiver, dials and the camera then speeds at breakneck pace along along wires and under the sea toward the phone of the person she is calling. The sequence, though, hints at the problems that Mann is facing in trying to make a muscular thriller for the Edward Snowden age – and it doesn't entirely work. Mann's title comes from the nickname for a "dark side" hacker, one who sets out to break internet security protocols for malign purposes.

The choice of leading man is instructive. The hacker hero here, Nick Hathaway, is nothing like the pale, bespectacled Snowden, locked up in a Hong Kong hotel room in the recent Oscar-nominated documentary Citizenfour. As played by Chris Hemsworth, Nick is the alpha-male type. He is seen early on doing press-ups in his prison cell, as if he is a latter-day equivalent to the convict/athlete in Mann's early TV movie, The Jericho Mile.

Alpha-male type: Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway in the film

A convicted hacker serving 15 years, he has it all – the M.I.T education, the Bruce Lee-like ability to beat up his enemies, the Thor-like physique (although he uses screwdrivers rather than hammers in the climactic scene), the seductive charm of Formula One champ James Hunt, and, of course, the genius for coding and hacking. Not that an outdoors type like him spends too much time wasting away in front of computer screens. When he is shown at the keyboard, it tends to be for brief, manly bursts of frantic typing – and he always manages to break the code. We are told that he has exchanged academia for "gladiator school".

Mann was reportedly inspired to make Blackhat when he read about "Stuxnet", the computer virus allegedly used by the US and Israel to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities. The screenplay, written by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl, seems initially to be trying to make some serious points about cyber-warfare and mass surveillance in a globalised world. At a time of increasing tension between the US and China over cyber-security issues, the film shows the Americans and Chinese working together.

After a RAT (a remote access tool) is used to hack into a nuclear facility in Hong Kong, a senior Chinese security officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) tells his bosses that the only person who can track down the villain is his old roommate Nick, who helped write the RAT software in the first place. The hacker is therefore sprung from jail by the FBI on the understanding that if he fails in the mission, he will be put straight back behind bars. Also along for the mission is Chen's beautiful sister Lien (Tang Wei, the brilliant Chinese actress from Ang Lee's Lust, Caution.) She too is a top computer engineer, even if her English is on the stilted side and she sounds as if she is reading her dialogue from cue cards. The pick of the character performances comes from Viola Davis as a hard-bitten, laconic FBI agent, nursing her own private grief.

The plot may be set in motion by a computer virus that threatens financial meltdown, but, as the story progresses and we are whisked from Hong Kong to Chicago to LA to Indonesia, Mann's interest in geo-politics gradually diminishes. Nor is he really that concerned with the intricacies of cyber-crime. At heart, this is an old-fashioned thriller. The baddie, played in engagingly chilly, cold-eyed fashion by Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen, could have come from a Bond movie. He is more interested in money – in rigging the markets – than in world domination. We're treated to a final-reel confrontation during an Indonesian parade that is as simple minded as that found in a Western in which the white-hatted hero has to draw against the black-hatted villain.

Blackhat offers a strange mix of sophistication and crudity, brilliant ideas and half-baked ones. It won't ever be bracketed with Mann's finest work but what it does possess, even in its more crackpot moments, is the drive and Hawks-like professionalism the director brings to everything he does.