You are no longer in control

You are no longer in control

Where crime and action films are concerned, there are few better directors than Michael Mann. Besides creating stories in the genre that are successful exercises in character, plot, and action, he manages to fill even his less-acclaimed films with enough rewarding scenes and details that they ultimately prove rewarding. However, every great artist eventually plays things safe and releases a “Greatest Hits Playlist” – a piece that borrows heavily from everything else they have done, but never quite elevates to the level of any of it.

BLACKHAT is Michael Mann taking requests…playing his hits…but probably not playing them in the arrangements we’ve come to know and love.

In China, a nuclear power plant is the target of an act of cyber terror. Using a remote access trojan (RAT), a hacker named Sadak is able  to trigger an explosion that leaves many dead, and the Chinese government scrambling to find the cracks in their security. Days later, the same RAT attacks the American stock market, threatening to throw the entire commodities market into disarray.

When the Chinese and Americans join forces to smoke-out the cyberterrorist, they turn to a Chinese national named Chen Dawai (Leehorn Wang) to lead the counterattack. Chen, in turn, recruits his sister Lien (Wei Tang) to help him co-ordinate his operations. However upon seeing the RAT Sadak used first-hand, Chen realizes he needs one more team member to launch a proper counterattack. The RAT is a program he designed…or rather, co-designed. Its other co-designer is named Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), and he’s currently serving  very long prison sentence for various acts of online criminal activities.

After Chen convinces FBI agent Carol Barret (Viola Davis) to furlough Hathaway and recruit him into the team, the geek squad is able to follow the RAT – and the money it gained – back to the source. Soon the team is both virtually and physically chasing some very dangerous men around the world, hoping to better understand how Sadak gained access…and better yet, figure out what he intends to do next.

Along the way, Lien and Hathaway become something of an item, clouding the waters for all involved. However it might not mean much if Hathaway fails and gets sent back to prison…or if Sadak does something really nasty and turns his attention on this team of would-be RATcatchers.

Viola Davis

 

A few months ago, I recall seeing a critic call for the end of graphics on our movie screens of what a given character was reading/typing/tweeting/what-have-you. While I admit that the trend has become a tiny bit over used in a post-Sherlock and/or House of Cards world, I believe it has a place. Gimmicky as it may be, popping the text on to the screen around the actors allows us to look at them and the text at the same time. It gives us a chance to see the expressions and emotions on their face as they interact with these pieces of data firsthand, and doesn’t bore us with shot after shot of computer screens (worse yet – computer screens primarily full of code). Footage of fingers flying across keyboards and lines and lines of code felt passé well before Neo took the red pill. There is nothing exciting about it, nothing dramatic about it, and nothing cinematic about it. Had we been able to watch these hackers’ faces as they work their mad skills we might have got a better sense of their cockiness, or their humility, or their fear. Instead we are yanked back fifteen or twenty years and prodded to care about reading emails and seeing IP addresses.

What’s really frustrating is that all of the time spent dropping in images of these hackers laptop screens and phone LED’s takes us away from what the film does rather well…what all Michael Mann films do well. Anytime the principles in this movie put their laptops down and pick up their knives and guns, the film delivers. While these scenes will never be come up in conversation regarding the best work that Michael Mann has ever done, they still come with his fingerprints all over them.

The guns have weight, and the knives have bite. When the shots ring out we are pinned to the backs of our seats, and what’s more, any bullet that finds its target seems to grab us by the guts and twist. We are in an age of bloodless violence – explosions and gunshots that occur with minimal carnage to preserve a low rating.

Michael Mann clearly doesn’t believe in this.

The rounds in his films can tear through shipping containers from over fifty yards, leaving us to think that our heroes in the story cannot get low enough to the ground. This is what happens when a director sees violence as more than just spectacle, and understands just how much damage a single round to the chest can do.

It’s in these moments that the film is at its best, or the moments of true tension that precede them. Unfortunately, the film has saddled a bad actor with a bad accent and had him deliver some bad dialogue, all of it working to undo all of the goodwill the film builds up. While the plot itself is affecting enough in an age where some of the most dangerous and disruptive people in the world are the ones who can bypass a firewall, Chris Hemsworth is seldom capable of engaging us as a cyber-vigilante. He’s cold, but not interestingly cold in an aloof Lisbeth Salander sort of way. What’s more, the move he makes on Lien comes almost out of nowhere (standing…standing…looking…looking…making out!). Their chemistry is fleeting, so the “Cyber Bonnie & Clyde” angle doesn’t hold water. To be fair, it’s not always Thor’s fault. More than once, the script has him saying some obvious things, some dumb things, and some obviously dumb things. Christopher Walken might not have even been able to get through some of this dialogue unscathed.

BLACKHAT is an interesting mess. There is enough there to make a truly solid thriller about cyber terror and seamlessly dovetail it into an tale laced with true tension. Unfortunately, this would have required a firmer grip on the tiller and clearer vision. Oddly enough, the film manages to describe itself when detailing the RAT Sadak uses to do all his damage: lean and graceful in utility, but messy and bloated in final execution.

Matineescore: ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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