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The term ‘blackhat’ is an interesting one to begin with when looking at Michael Mann’s latest offering. In the context of this film, it refers to a computer hacker who violates computer or internet security laws for illegal or personal gain. This person isn’t necessarily a good guy, at least not in the sense that we typically view good guys. You think about the old pre-Clint Eastwood westerns where you saw the good guys in the white (or some other light color) hat and the bad guys of course, wore the black hats. You knew who was whom and you knew the black hats were going down.
Here in Blackhat, the term plays out in two ways: in one way, the cause of much of the film’s conflicts come up thanks to a blackhat with nefarious intent. In another way, the forces who oppose the blackhat, must ultimately enlist the services of a former blackhat (Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth) in order to bring an end to the cybercrime. On paper, the premise seems interesting enough to warrant a closer look, wouldn’t you say?
In execution though, while it is worthy of the weight the name Michael Mann carries, with such hits as Collateral, Public Enemies and of course, the great Heat on his resumé, the film also makes one question the logic of certain choices made both by the characters and by Mann himself.
Off top, this is an overall smart film with expertly and even lyrically choreographed action sequences that put you right in the middle of it all. For all of the chaos in some of those scenes, there is an odd comfort to witnessing how they are executed. It’s as if Mann is cradling us through the storm in all its terrifying beauty. There is a rawness in such chase or shootout action sequences that scream the stamp of Mann; top-notch action that does not feel comic-booky. Rather, said action beats carry great weight that is palpable; you feel that anyone could be killed at any moment.
For the most part, the acting is strong. Hemsworth is passable as Nicholas Hathaway, the furloughed convict joining forces with the American and Chinese government agencies to capture the bad guy. The script does not give him too much room to stretch; here, he plays Hathaway pretty straight. There is little understatement. If nothing else is apparent, it is that he has proven many times that he possesses the chops of an action star and this film is another one to add to the list. Viola Davis is a great component here and is certainly a heavy hitter with her tough-as-nails portrayal of government agent Carol Barrett. The support she provides is fantastic, but is not around enough.
Leehom Wang and Wei Teng as Chen Dawai and Chen Lien, the brother and sister team of Chinese officers working alongside the Americans, were also good support for Hemsworth. Particularly Wang, who really sank his teeth into the role bringing great subtle moments that were few and far between. He seemed at times, like a lone hero from an anime film brought to life with as much layered complexity as any character from the greatest anime-flicks. He brings something that is not conveyed through the dialogue, but through his posture and body language. Alternatively, Teng was striking in many ways, but she too brought a force that was tapped into even less. Be it the fault of Mann or the screenplay or both, this was the case. In fact, it was so much so, that she almost seemed completely unnecessary to the plot and quite frankly, could have been cut from the movie and the story would scarcely be any different. Her only real purpose was to be set up as the booty call and potential love-interest for Hemsworth’s Hathaway in a film that did not need a love interest, which is disappointing.
Another disappointment is the film’s treatment of the heavy Sadak, played by Yorick van Wageningen. He is not around long at all. While the way in which Mann handles the villain feels unique, it also feels as if there is an element that is undercooked. You could make the case for the problems that withholding the identity of the villain for so long could pose for an audience invested in the story, particularly when the villain does not seem to have any emotional connection to the protagonists. There is a flatness, which takes away from the threatening feeling he should have. This is not to say that the bad guy has to be a part of our protagonist’s past per se as a form of emotional connection, but perhaps the two could have discovered a mutual respect for one another even though they are on opposing sides or maybe there could have been a suggested reason for the actions Sadak takes aside from money. It just would have been nice to have a heavy who was actually heavy with real weight and gravitas. For that not to be present in a Michael Mann film is indeed a chink in the armor.
If Blackhat is nothing else, it manages to serve as a solid commentary on a new battlefield where wars (any kind of war you like, ranging from that on social media to something larger and much more politically driven) are fought today. It calls to mind something from the 2012 Bond film Skyfall, another film that dealt with a hacker in Javier Bardem’s Silva, who could definitely be viewed as a blackhat. There is a potent scene where Judi Dench’s ‘M’ talks about new battles being fought in the shadows and how in order to stop enemies in the shadows, the heroes must journey there. Blackhat is certainly very timely in that way, especially as the landscape of cybercrime and cyberwarfare continues to shift and evolve.