** SPOILERS **
The trailer for Blackhat is a snowjob, promising a frightening depiction of how vulnerable we are to hackers in the way we live our lives, devices always in hand, information sharing freely. The generic dialogue in the trailer like "You are not in control!" and "This is only the beginning!" are nowhere to be found in the actual movie. Though centering on the terrorist crimes of a mysterious "Blackhat" who hacked into a Chinese nuclear plant to cause a meltdown and then drove soy futures up so he could embezzle $75-million, Blackhat isn't purely about hacking as much as it is a cold, relentless, ultra-violent cyber thriller in the alluring, pulse-pounding Michael Mann style. This is Michael Mann back in action, guns blazing, hard men at work perpetrating global crime and law enforcement rallying to catch up.
To catch this blackhat hacker, a Chinese-American task force recruits Chris Hemsworth, himself an imprisoned blackhat hacker who wrote the code in college the mystery man used to perpetrate his attacks. The multinational cast includes Leehom Wang as Hemsworth's former college roommate at MIT who's running the op from the Chinese end and Viola Davis as the American agent trying to keep Hemsworth in line. Also on board is Wang's stunning, sullen sister Wei Tang, herself a skilled hacker and wouldn't you know it, she falls for Hemsworth instantly. They all immediately accept this plot inevitability and move on. Mann shoots Hemsworth, Wang, and Tei in profiles as they ride in speedboats, soar in planes, or look grimly off in the distance, each framed against colorful, eye-popping nighttime cityscapes. Hemsworth and his friends also find time to eat; there's food porn in Blackhat. Whether it's Korean BBQ in LA or shumai in Hong Kong, Blackhat occasionally feels a bit like Anthony Bourdain's show, just with a lot more violent killing.
Hemsworth and his team travel from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta chasing their nefarious enemy Blackhat, finding themselves engaging in several explosive, bloody firefights against hired mercenaries. One wonders what qualifies Hemsworth and Wang to don hazmat suits and enter the damaged nuclear plant in China looking for clues, but whatever. When Hemsworth discovers their target's identity (and it turns out to be the man who raped Rooney Mara in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -- the seedy and fantastically cast Yorick Van Wageningen), he mounts a gambit to steal his millions and bring him to light to kill him that's as audacious as it is questionable. Mann -- bringing his A game from Heat and Miami Vice -- is in peak form during the shocking and visceral action scenes, a virtuoso at making sure his handheld cameras are as close as possible to capture bullets ripping through human flesh. Mann's sound designer deserves an Oscar nomination just for the sound of a screwdriver being driven into a human chest repeatedly. Blackhat is as ruthless as a Hollywood action film can be; the body count claims 3/4s of the cast including some of the marquee names.
Following the plot of Blackhat requires effort and concentration. Blackhat hurtles along, unconcerned with proper character introductions or whether the audience can follow what's happening. Information is doled out on a need to know basis. The hacking and mechanics of events seems to be labyrinthine but the gist of it is gradually explained by Hemsworth, just when one imagines Denzel Washington in Philadelphia demanding things be explained to him like he's a six year old. It really all boils down to "following the money," and when Hemsworth susses out what's actually happening, Blackhat turns out to not be about an assault on our freedoms or a message against the dangers of our inter-connected world, but an elaborate get rich quick scheme by a guy willing to kill a lot of people and upset the global economy to do it. Hemsworth is a handsome, dogged leading man, more believable smashing faces in fights but sufficiently engaging at a keyboard writing authentic code. Like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice, Hemsworth falls for a beautiful Chinese woman. Unlike Farrell, who allowed drug trafficker Bai Ling to escape to Cuba, Hemsworth gets to keep the girl; two sexy fugitives from justice with millions of stolen dollars and the whole world at their fingertips. It's a hacker's dream.