A near-catastrophic nuclear reactor breach at a Hong Kong power plant sets the stage for "Blackhat," a glossy tech-thriller from director Michael Mann (2009's "Public Enemies
") that works through its unnecessary tangents and shaggy subplots by sheer force of its filmmaking prowess. When there is a leader at the helm who knows what he or she is doing, their assured professionalism can go a long way in smoothing out a host of potentially detrimental shortcomings. It also helps that Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl never talk down to their viewers, trusting that they will be able to follow the absorbingly circuitous narrative even as ricocheting technical jargon flies freely amidst the characters' interactions.
With the cryptic cyber intruders responsible for the meltdown just getting started with their treacherous extortion/eco-terrorism plot, no-nonsense FBI official Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and Chinese agent Dawai Chen (Wang Leehom) haven't a moment to spare. They need to find a computer-savvy ace who will help them smoke out the so-called blackhat's identity, and Dawai is certain that their man is Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a former college friend currently serving thirteen years in prison for a hacking scandal. Equipped with an ankle bracelet pinpointing his every move, Nicholas agrees to accept a furlough under the condition that he be set free if he helps to catch the culprits. His precarious mission will take him to China, Malaysia and Indonesia as he and Dawai's sister, network engineer Lien (Tang Wei), edge closer to the truth behind the malware attacks.
Lensed with a sweeping exotic lushness by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (2013's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
"), "Blackhat" brings a compelling criticality to a story that requires its protagonists spend an inordinate amount of time typing away in front of computer screens. Director Michael Mann is conscientious about expanding the scope beyond this, however, imagining a number of edgy action set-pieces among the rhapsodic metropolis lights of Hong Kong. Not every scene is a slam-dunka visit inside the hazardous reactor is good for some striking visuals, but the intensity of the situation is squandered when it fails to follow throughbut when he gets it right, the results overwhelm with electric inspiration. The old reliable explosion/shoot-out combo might sound old-hat on paper, but it is anything but when Mann gets done with it. By taking the time to see things from different angles, as when the camera adopts the point of view of a mortally wounded person as she breathes her last breath, he is able to transcend the familiar.
Portraying the best-looking computer hacker who has ever lived, an intensely focused Chris Hemsworth (2013's "Rush
") proves surprisingly easy to believe in the role of Nicholas Hathaway. With only a little bit learned about his criminal history but nothing to inform why he went down that road, it is a testament to Hemsworth's charisma that it hardly matters that he remains something of an enigma. What most threatens to get in the way is the romance that blossoms between Nicholas and Lien, who share a few longing glances before spending far too much time in the rambling second act lounging in bed rather than doing their time-sensitive jobs. In her first English-language film, Tang Wei (2007's "Lust, Caution") equips herself nicely as Lien, her strongest asset lying in the expressiveness she is able to bring to her face. Though her role is generally superfluous, little more than an excuse to give Hemsworth a love interest, it is appreciated that Mann makes her an active participant in the goings-on. In a commanding supporting turn, Viola Davis (2013's "Ender's Game
") ensures authority figure Carol Barrett is defined by her fierce intelligence even as a key piece of tragic information from her past sheds newfound light on her current path in life.
With information hacking a hot-button topic in our current media, "Blackhat" has the benefit of arriving at the right place and right time. The script often appears to be on the verge of digging deeper into its subject matter, but opts instead for generally surface-ready entertainment value. The bold aesthetics, though, are a keeper, with a climactic do-or-die pursuit playing out against a sea of Jakarta paradegoers reminding of no less than the spellbinding work of vintage Brian De Palma. "Blackhat" is far from infallible when it comes to its shoehorned love story and underwritten characters, but there is no disputing the clear audacity and passion with which Michael Mann continues to tackle the medium.