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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Blackhat Review: Hacker Thriller Serves Up the Caution

Michael Mann's cautionary Blackhat is expertly shot and well-acted but needs a serious edit.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Review by Matt Cummings

When the world is threatened by an unprecedented cyber attack, the US and Chinese governments band together to discover its source, gathering a list of talented cyber agents like the Chinese officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and his sister Kien Chen (Wei Tang) along with the FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). But that won't be enough to stem the next wave of terror, so Dawai goes to the only person who can help: the imprisoned cyber criminal Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemworth). As their investigation leads all over the world, Hathaway must track the terrorist Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen) and his ruthless associate Kassar (Ritchie Coster) before they completely wipe out Hathaway's team and carry out another attack.

This isn't Mann's first violent picnic - he seems to thrill in placing his characters in realistic, dangerous situations, running many of them through the gristmill before tossing them at the side of the road. This makes for great theater, and Cinematographer Stuart DryBurgh paints us one gorgeous long image after another. But that's where some might take issue with Blackhat, as many scenes by Mann could have been tightened up. There's lots of prolonged tightly-focused stares and contemplation by Hemsworth and others, along with a diet of un-SteadyCam that might make audiences feel a bit nauseous. But this is what you get from Mann, his Miami Vice fingerprints penetrating every inch of this, including the haunting score by Ryan Amon which sets a clear tone for the way this thriller will play out.

Writer Morgan Davis Foehi doesn't gift us with a climax that's anything other than what you expect; you know Hemsworth is going to find the baddie, and there's the typical deadline before more cyber Hell breaks loose. What makes Blackhat so rewarding is the continued high stakes which Mann throws in front of his characters, making each of them as expendable as the next. Yes, major characters die in Mann films, and Blackhat is no different. This makes the affair much more satisfying, not because we enjoy seeing large percentages of our leads gunned down, blown up, or cut prison-style, but because it makes every scene worth watching. No one is safe, and Mann uses that fear to high effectiveness. Just when you think the energy has been sapped from the script, enter the high-profile death of someone who under normal circumstances would have made it out at the end of any other film. What's more, their deaths don't occur because Mann and his team need to punch up the action: it comes as a normal and realistic way crime is fought, with officers paying the ultimate price for signing on the dotted line.

There's been a lot of criticism over the years leveled at Hemsworth, none of which I think is warranted. He's a terrific actor, a mesmerizing presence in every scene he's in, and Blackhat gives him lots of chances to show us he's developed well beyond his iconic Thor character. If 2013's Rush hadn't already proven that, Blackhat should shut the door on that needless conversation. Our Chinese duo stand out as both likable and tragic heroes, their arcs serving the greater purpose of the story instead of being elevate to invincible figures. The same goes for Davis who will make a terrific Amanda Waller in the upcoming Suicide Squad, her slow burn eventually giving way to a violent unraveling of her character. Our baddie is rather one-note, but his eventual appearance makes for excellent action when he and Hathaway clash in a great ending.

But Blackhat is more than a Mann-fest of gratuitous violence: it serves as a message for a future time when these kinds of attacks will both seriously threaten the world and occur so often that we'll forget what life was like before them. Mann warns us that virtual world nearly encompasses the planet, and that terrorists will wage the next war from their keyboards, imploding the system without risking men in a traditional 20th Century assault. You then add the sometimes deafening roar of Mann's machines of war, and it feels like the perfect message and warning for our times.

Blackhat is filled with excellent performances, gorgeous scenes by Mann and DryBurgh, and a haunting soundtrack by Amon. Unfortunately, its long runtime might keep some moviegoers away, especially with the way Mann takes three minutes to do what it could have been in one. But for those who know what they're getting, it's a terrific thriller.

Blackhat is rated a surprising R for violence and some language and has a runtime of 133 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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