Movie Review: Blackhat (2015)
Two early reaction shots sum up my feelings about “Blackhat,” the cyber/hacking thriller by Michael Mann that was released (and bombed) in January. The first one gave me hope for the film; the second gave me the opposite of hope.
Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is a hero in the Michael Mann mold: working class background, taciturn, expert at what he does—which, in his case, is coding and hacking. In an interconnected world, he pretty much gets into and out of anywhere he wants. Well, sort of. As the movie opens, he’s in prison: USP Canaan in Waymart, Pa. (The details of the details are a hallmark of Mann.) There, he’s visited by an DOJ agent. A blackhat hacker has caused 1) a nuke meltdown in China, and 2) a run on soy futures in the stock market, and the FBI, in the person of Carol Barrett (Viola Davis, brilliant), is working with the Chinese army, in the person of Capt. Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), to find him and neutralize him. The U.S., in other words, has to work with its rival, and a country that hacks us, to bring down the bad guy. Tough enough. But then Chen insists on working with Hathaway, his former college roommate, since the blackhat used code he and Hathaway wrote in college. Barrett reluctantly agrees. Hathaway unreluctantly doesn’t. He’s offered a contract, a temporary furlough, and returns it unsigned:
Hathway: Both you and the Assistant U.S. Attorney can take that document and stick it up your ass.
Agent: I'm sorry?
Hathaway: Why are you sorry? I insulted you. What are you sorry for? I'm not sorry.
That’s a nice line and Hemsworth says it well. Apparently Mann steeped him in his character for months before shooting began. He took him to prison, to midwest steel mills, he told him the voluminous background of his character. They hung with coders and hackers and learned the lingo until it was second nature. All of that work is onscreen.
Eventually, Barrett agrees to Hathaway’s terms—a pardon, basically, if they catch the guy—but there’s initial tension between the two. Hathway calls her “chica,” she dresses him down, he stays amused. Tracking the stock market hack, they find the mole on surveillance cameras cleaning up in the company washroom, and Barrett immediately identifies one of his tattoos belonging to a West Texas prison gang. She calls up the NCIC database and finds their man. It’s a dead-end, since he’s now dead, but in that moment, as Barrett is working, we get Hathaway’s reaction shot. He’s impressed. He knows he’s working with a professional here. He sees a kindred spirit.
The second reaction shot
The team that’s assembled is in fact a professional team: not just Barrett, Hathaway and Chen, but U.S. Marshall Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany), who, yes, gets played by Hathaway, but he’s still another classic Mann character: taciturn, brave, expert at what he does.
The reaction shot that bummed me out belongs to the fifth member of the team, Chen’s sister, Lien (Wei Tang, yowsah), who is also a computer expert. At one point, she and Hathaway are in a Koreatown restaurant hoping for a meeting with the blackhat. They sit, wait, talk. I like the moment where, on a backroom computer, Hathaway opens a line of communication with the hacker, telling him, “I am onto you.” “Who are you?” the hacker types back. Hathaway pauses. He’s a name, after all, in the hacking world. He’s been in prison for what he’s done. So he thinks for a moment before revealing the goods: “ghostman,” he types. Does he think it still means something? Because it doesn’t. “Piss off and die, ghostman,” his rival types dismissively. Ghostman has been away too long. He’s now a ghost.
Great bit. But then the fight. In the same restaurant, the blackhat sends three big Koreans to mess up Hathaway. Except in prison, Hathaway not only worked on his mind but his body. I mean, look at him: He’s Thor. And he takes down all three in what seems like realistic fashion. And from Lien? A look of admiration. That’s when I went, “Uh oh.”
Of the five core members of the team, Lien is the most unnecessary. They say her talent is computer networks but her real talent is beauty. Wei Tang has a simple unadorned beauty that’s stunning to behold, and Mann lets us behold it. Of course she and Hathaway fall in love, or something similar, but I could’ve cared less. With that reaction shot from Lien, I felt the movie shifting in a much less interesting direction.
The tension in a Michael Mann movie is between the professional and anything that gets in the way of his independence. Sometimes it’s women and love. More often it’s suspect groups: Leo’s gang in “Thief,” Brown & Williamson and CBS in “The Insider,” the U.S. Army in “Ali.” But small, professional teams can be assembled. You lose the Waingros of the world, the emotional and talkative ones, you can work within a group. That’s what happens in “Blackhat.” We get our team. But then we lose them.
Two things happen. In China, to pick up the blackhat’s trail, our team needs access to a piece of NSA software called Black Widow; but there’s no way the NSA is going to let Hathaway, let alone China, get access to it. So, with Barrett’s tacit approval, Hathaway hacks the access. Of course he’s immediately discovered and Barrett is ordered to bring him back to USP Canaan. But she knows it’s more important to bring in the blackhat, so she looks the other way as Hathaway plans his escape.
At the same time, the bad guys they’ve been trailing, led by professional mercenary Elias Kassar (Ritchie Coster), are now trailing them. And at the moment by the side of the road when Hathaway is saying goodbye to Lien, who has gotten emotional, and has blamed both Hathaway and her brother for all that she’s feeling; at that moment when she decides to forgive her brother, and waves to him in the car, that’s when the car blows up and Kassar and his men attack.
Question: Is it a good thing I knew the car would blow up before it did? Is that foreshadowing or predictability? It feels predictable. It doesn't feel right. Worse, every member of the team dies except Hathaway and Lien, who carry on alone for the last 45 minutes of the movie. But I already felt done with it. I wanted the team not the couple.
I do like how pedestrian the blackhat’s plot turns out to be. All of this work? It’s set-up for the real hack: flooding tin mines in Malaysia, and getting rich when tin prices soar. It isn’t “taking over the world.” It isn’t even gold or silver. It's tin. Good in-joke.
But then it’s back to bang bang. In Jakarta, there’s a cat-and-mouse final battle with guns and knives amid a big, celebratory crowd. It’s back to one guy, our hero, and we’re supposed to give him the look Lien gave him earlier. But we’ve seen this movie before.
“Blackhat” is more moody poetry from Mann, meaning it’s better than most movies out there; but it’s lesser than most of his movies. If I could I would take Mann’s guns away from him. Force him to play with something else for a change. Look at “The Insider.” The pressures there are corporate pressures. They’re about how to stay honest in the world, which is run by corporations, and still support your family. In what ways does a man compromise to live in the world? What value is a code in a world that seems to have none?