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Blackhat Review

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After a cyber attack on a Chinese nuclear plant leads to a catastrophic explosion, convicted hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) is allowed out of prison to help track down the perpetrator.

★★★★★

Trust Michael Mann to return to movies after a five-year absence with a film that bleeds relevance. Less than two months after malicious hackers bring Sony Pictures to its knees, here comes Mann with a hyperreal depiction of computer crime to perfectly capture the cultural zeitgeist.

Not only is the timing impeccable but Mann’s attention to detail is remarkably well-judged: computer malfeasance stripped of Hollywood embellishment. Movie hacking to date has borne little resemblance to actual computer use, caffeine-fuelled coding interspersed with bouts of RSI never deemed the making of riveting cinema. It is to challenge that assertion that Mann has crafted the most deliberately authentic cyberterrorism thriller to date. Meticulously researched, it hews as closely as possible to real life, righting with a few dozen keystrokes what the likes of WarGames, The Net and Sneakers have bastardised over the decades.

There are no laughing skulls, no creeping progress bars, no Wayne Knight wagging an admonishing finger. Here, scripts and syntax are pored over with forensic detail. It may not sound the stuff of cinematographers’ dreams, but Mann replaces the genre tropes with far more imaginative visualisations. A Fincher-esque transition from computer to cable provides a byte’s-eye view of circuits igniting with glowing data; elsewhere we’re led to peer up at delving digits from beneath the surface of a keyboard. Even in his quest for truth, Mann is too visual a filmmaker to let mundanity take hold.

Conceived by the director but penned by first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, Blackhat lays claim to veracity early on, opening with a nod to the Stuxnet worm that crippled Iran’s nuclear plants in 2010. Edge routers, RATs and encrypted IPs are name-checked with deliberate purpose. Foehl takes pains to explain in detail how each hack works, spreading jargon like butter lest we ever imagine he’s just making this shit up.

The attention to detail begins to waver before long, however, wheeling out nonsense tech MacGuffins to escape a narrative cul-de-sac. Similarly, while the film scores points for demonstrating that most successful hacks rely on social engineering rather than clever coding, it hinges a major plot point on one senior NSA analyst being stupid enough to run a dodgy email attachment. Such lazy devices in a film purporting authenticity is as unwelcome as it is unnecessary.

As the hunt pulls Hathaway and his Sino-American task force from LA to Hong Kong, from Malaysia to Indonesia, the cat-and-mouse crime thriller disperses into more generic espionage territory, where grenades rather than logic bombs hold sway. But even as the story loses focus, Mann finds himself on familiar ground, concocting a playlist of surgically precise action sequences with effortless invention. A Korean restaurant erupts into an unexpected burst of savage violence, while a shipyard foot-chase uses Stuart Dryburgh’s ragged handheld camerawork to dizzying effect. In Hong Kong, a show-stopping slo-mo explosion heralds the start of a breathless street shoot-out that echoes Heat’s ballistic heist sequence.

Given Mann’s flair for adversarial relationships (Max and Vincent, Hanna and McCauley), the lack of any such here is strongly felt. Yorick van Wageningen’s wiry-haired antagonist remains a nebulous half-presence, largely unseen until the final reel. Even the core team are a loosely sketched bunch: Hathaway’s MIT past with Captain Chen (Leehom Wang) is used as little more than a plot starter, while Wei Tang’s sexy tech girl is forced and uncomfortable as a humanising love interest. Hemsworth struggles as a kind of Jason Bourne with admin rights, an archetype cocktail vacillating improbably between code-prodigy and efficient killer. Only Viola Davis manages to make any headway, teasing some welcome smirks from her hard-nosed fed.

Landing in the aftermath of the Sony hack, the timing for Blackhat could hardly be more opportune. But even with such fallow ground to sow, this lacks the personality and precision of Mann’s finest work, hindered by a screenplay lacking the courage of its convictions. There’s excellence in the execution and Mann’s action beats are faultless. But topical as this is, it lacks the vibrancy and nuance of the director’s best work.

A competent procedural rather than the ground-breaking cybersaga we’d hoped for. But as with Miami Vice, Mann’s boundless style does a remarkable job of disguising the lack of substance.