Blackhat is a high end crime thriller starring Chris Hemsworth but does not include any hats. Confused? You will be.
I forgot to mention that this is a Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) film. And it starts off like any normal Michael Manm crime film – we’re in some city at night and all the lights make us go “oooo”. But it’s not LA though. We’re in Hong Kong. Mann has gone multi-national.
Similar to Heat, we begin in an area of high technology; a nuclear power plant, the control room. People are milling about, working, looking busydoing nuclear power plant stuff. The readsouts are all in Chinese but we’re smart enough to know that if the needles aren’t pointed into the red zones we’re all OK. It’s business as usual. There’s probably even some dude taking a crap in a work toilet somewhere, feeling good about the fact he’s both saving on toilet roll and getting paid at the same time. That’s spoiled when some shady character in a house somewhere else bangs some stuff into a keyboard. Then we enter the Matrix.
Not literally. Instead, our field of vision drops from that of the normal person to that of a microscope. We zoom in super close to a modem cable, follow it into a server bank and then get even smaller so we’re actually inside a circuit. It looks weird, Orwellian or 2001-y. More keystrokes by bad bastard hacker and the circuit springs to life. Lights and stuff begin to ping about and do stuff. It’s not really clear what as I’m not an electrical engineer, and this sequence is only really repeated once and never explained. Anyway, it turns on something and causes the coolant motor in the reactor to blow. However, all the temperature gauges are still reading normal! Everyone is too busy to notice with their eyes that the water inside is boiling before the entire places starts blowing up.
Cue evacuation, ambulances, lights, people screaming/coughing/panicing. Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang – China Strike Force) turns up and looks concerned. Days later, this time in Chicago, some trading exchange gets hacked, causing the price of soy to rise. Chen’s superiors get wind of this and send the young cyber sleuth to the US to look into it further. Because he’s clearly got some pull, he brings his cute baby sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei – Lust, Caution) with him too.
After looking at the code used in both hackings, it’s clear it’s someone of respectable (but evil) power pushing the buttons. The code is familiar to Chen because he and a buddy actually wrote it long ago when they were precocious university roomies in America. After graduation Chen went back East to join the G-unit. His roommate, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth – Rush), used his powerful code-writing skills for the wrong reasons and got sent down for his troubles.
Still, Chen thinks their best bet is to secure the release of Hathaway so that they can all go looking for the hacker. After impressing FBI liaison Carol Barrett (Viola Davis – Suicide Squad) with his knowledge of tech anagrams like RAT (Remote Access Tool) and pr0n (porn), it’s agreed to go and fetch the badboy blackhat from the slammer.
We’re immediately treated to a “how badass is this guy” moment when they arrive. See Hathaway is in the hole for giving each of the prisoners a pay rise. How you may ask, by hacking the goddamn System using a mobile phone. He’s that skilfull damnit! He’s also jacked to hell which raises some questions. They try and pass it off with a little speech about “healthy mind, healthy body”, but it’s still difficult not to notice Hemsworth swelling out of the tight-fitting t-shirts the wardrobe department has carefully selected for him (shame on you Colleen Atwood – Mission Impossible 3).
Now, lets be fair. Hackers seldom play centre stage. They’re usually secondary characters. And there is a reason for this: hackers tend to be geeks. They don’t tend to be man mountains like Chris Hemsworth. Hacking and any techno-pursuit requires a hell of a lot of dedication. Think of all that time spent pumping iron, mixing protein shakes, and conditioning his hair that could have been used actually becoming a better hacker.
Yet, he’s still Chen’s go-to guy. Okay, I get it, they were old roommates. And Hathaway DID write the code, but I still don’t see why he’s integral to the investigation. He’s not like Sean Connery in the Rock where he actually knows the layout of Alcatraz or anything. He just wrote some hack long ago which has now been jerry-rigged by some nefarious bastard.
I mean think about it; get out of the game for even a few months and you’ve got an almost insurmountable mountain to climb back up. It’s a fluid state, technology, and I don’t buy the fact that Hemsworth being imprisoned would give him the same footing as someone who was on the cutting edge of the hacker technology. Come on, if you’ve been in prison for years, you hardly expect them to even be caught up on Game of Thrones, let alone fully up to speed on the latest tech. Trust me on this one FBI Agent Barrett, deny his release.
At least he’s being shadowed by Deputy Marshal Jessup (Holt McCallany – Fight Club). We all know that at no point is Hathaway gonna shake this rugged lawdog (spoiler: he does).
From here we’re taken on a merry chase from country to country as the group try and track the hackers. The recipient of the stock exchange money is back in Hong Kong so they all bugger off back there (seriously, the Chens must be suffering from serious jet lag by now). Tracing the cash to some para-military guy called Elias Kassar (Ritchie Coster – that weird russian mobster in The Dark Knight), they team up with some Hong Kong cops to bring them all in. Even Hathaway gets a gun on this bust.
But it’s a trap and all the Hong Kong cops die like in a bad Star Trek episode. Chen and Hathaway manage to get away, but so does Kassar on a boat.
As any student of Michael Mann will tell you, there is at least one big shoot out in all of his films (even the pre-machine gun Last of the Mohicans). While Blackhat’s action has stayed pretty low-key to this point with the odd fist fight, it’s unusual for such a major battle to take place in the middle of a film. Now if we’d had a few car chases, a bar brawl and an explosion, this scene would of fit well. But we don’t really know the significance of what is going on. We don’t know the players. We don’t know who these HKPD guys are. True, I’d been yearning for some action, but in retrospect, it’s the violent pinnacle of this movie. Even the climax doesn’t really match it. And it’s not a good thing to peak right in the middle.
By now all the shit in the nuclear power plant at the beginning of the film has cooled down. Hathaway and Chen, lacking any other leads, decided to suit up and go in, but it’s super tense and dangerous because if their heart rate goes up over a certain amount they’ll pass out and die due to the heat and radiation. Still, they recover one of the irradiated hard drives that had been hacked without breaking too much of a sweat.
Sadly, all the data is corrupted. But Hathaway knows that the NSA have this special program which can reconstruct and decrypt it. As it’s strictly kind of illegal technology, the NSA dudes won’t lend it to the FBI for the investigation. It’s some real grease-ball, deny-all-existence type government politics bollocks. Thankfully, we’ve got Hathaway with us, and he reckons he can hack the NSA to get what they need. The only problem is that he’ll most likely get caught and get sent down for even longer when the case is closed.
He’s a good guy though and does what needs to be done while everyone else looks away. This bums out Lien something rotten, as the pair have sort of gotten themselves into a bit of a relationship. Any way, Hathaway’s NSA hack is equally brilliant and equally stupid at the same time. He literally sends the dude who denied them the use of the tech an email saying “yo, these people who need our secret tool are probably gonna hack you, so make sure you change your password. Please click this link”.
And he does.
These people are supposed to be in charge of our cyber security! I bet he’s expecting his piece of the $64 million pie from that Gambian prince he helped out via email last month too. So the shit hits the fan, the big wigs at the NSA contact the bigger wigs at the FBI, and agent Barrett is ordered to bring Hathaway in.
But they’re all so close! Are they going to get to the devious hacker before he pulls off the next movie in his master plan, or will Hathaway get removed from the game for foul play? Well, you’ll have to watch to find out.
First things first. The title “Blackhat” refers to the CIA/FBI designation of criminal hackers. Whitehats are ethical hackers – basically do-gooders who hack shit so they can say “hey mate your website is like super vulnerable. I hacked it in like 5 seconds. But here, let me help you make it safer”. Blackhats are the exact opposite; cyber bad-guys who will hack anything to get anything, regardless of laws, ethics or collateral damage. I’m not going to get into the argument about why black = evil. We’ll save that for the million man march.
But back on topic, unless you knew the connection between coloured headwear and it’s hacker designation, you’d probably spend the entire movie wondering when the eponymous hat would feature. This is a common symptom of Michael Mann movies. His dedication to realism is commendable, but us puny humans in our safe little non-criminal bubbles can be left scratching our noggins.
Usually you can figure out what’s going on. There’s tons of references to stuff like “scores”, “bits in Attica”, “heat” in Heat, but you can figure those out easily enough. When we’re talking about high end technology like hacking, it has to be dumbed down. My Mum loves Chris Hemsworth. But she can barely use Facebook. Christ, she still uses a phone with actual physical buttons on. Do you seriously think she knows what an IP address is?
Mann makes another critical error in his choice of subject matter too. Let’s face it, there are only two types of hacker movies. Ones where it’s ludicrous and people can hack satellites and cars and vending machines (Under Siege 2). The other is the super serious “typing” sort of movie where they’re limited to the constraints of reality. Blackhat struggles with it’s hacker identity, one minute being all stupid (Hemsworth giving each prisoner a pay rise using a mobile phone) to being realistic (them being unable to find the culprit). There’s a lot of moments of people staring at computer screens and typing which slows everything down.
Another issue is our lack of “place”. By this I mean is that we’re never in one place long enough to get a sense of things. One minute we’re in Hong Kong, then Washington, then somewhere else, back to Hong Kong etc etc. We’re zipping about so much, and it’s always dark and we never really sort of know where we are any more. You wonder how Hemsworth and co. are able to just seamlessly integrate and get about. I don’t know about you, but I generally look lost of fuck when I’m in a foreign country.
Typically, Mann likes to focus his attention on location. The streets of LA are effectively a character themselves in Heat or Collateral. In contract, Miami is giving it’s own stylistic visuals in Miami Vice. I understand that hacking is not a national problem, but an international one. But if Die Hard 4 (a film similar in every manner, just far more entertaining) can isolate the issue to New York, surely Blackhat could have cut down on some of the locations.
Musically, it’s underwhelming. Mann usually likes to have mood music to highlight certain scenes, which is then woven into actual real life musical ques (like a song on a radio or in a nightclub etc). There’s none of that here, and the sound track is so unremarkable that you’d be forgiven for thinking it didn’t have one.
Equally so, the action. The shoot-out in the middle of the movie lacks any sort of punch simply because you have no idea as to who is who. Because you don’t know what is going on, you simply don’t invest a shit into whether any one lives or dies (save Hemsworth).
The climactic action sequence is sufficiently low key as well. Hemsworth wraps himself in magazines as a sort of ad-hoc body armor (his muscles will absorb the rest, right?) to a meeting with Kassar and the blackhat. But, unlike the final confrontation between de Niro and Pacino in Heat, there is no tension. There is no question as to who is going to win, which sucks.
From a bastard perspective maybe it was the plan to have the bad guy have no real sense of character or motivation beyond being a greedy shit. Considering the entire fucking movie is about tracking him down, surely we could have afforded a little more screen time to the guy. IMDB lists him as Sadak the Blackhat, played by the fat rapist pig (otherwise known as Yorick Van Wageningen) from Fincher’s take on the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Yeah, I get it, it’s all about how these people can be faceless etc etc, but one of the chief elements of good drama is having an antagonist that challenges the hero. And what challenge is a fat dude with curly hair to Chris “I am Thor” Hemsworth?
Look, I’ve ragged all over Blackhat. It didn’t hold my interest. But I also always have high expectations from such a great director as Michael Mann. Maybe you’ll like it if you’re not expecting much from it. I don’t know. I did enjoy the multi-national cast, and there are a few twist moments that will probably surprise you, so that’s something I guess.
I urge you to get it watched if you happen to be a die-hard Chris Hemsworth or Michael Mann fan. Otherwise, there are better hacker movies that I’d much rather recommend. Under Siege 2, for example.