Blackhat is Michael Mann’s best film in a decade. Yes, that means it’s better than Miami Vice and Public Enemies. That’s how this works. It is certainly the best new movie I’ve seen in January. Faint praise again and please read between the lines but a solid movie in Dumpland is something to celebrate.
When a cyber attack causes a Chinese nuclear plant explosion and sends the stock market into turmoil, the Chinese and U.S. government team up with imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to find the blackhat hacker. If Hathaway catches the blackhat hacker, his sentence gets commuted. It gets more complicated though.
Movies about hacking always face a problem of making computer code cinematic. Blackhat doesn’t exactly solve that problem but it finds creative ways around it, so we’re not just watching Hemsworth type at a keyboard and narrate what he’s doing. We see some non-code buried in lines of symbols, so we know those don’t belong. We know what IP addresses are now, and we all know not to open an attachment sent in a cryptic e-mail. The film has good fun with that at high levels, although computer generated animation zooming through microscopic chips is more old hat than Blackhat (ha!). A shot of the underside of a computer keyboard is interesting, though I don’t exactly understand how it’s helping us follow Hathaway’s plan.
The story goes to the gray area you hope it does, when Hathaway is called upon to do bad things for the good of the mission, risking his own deal in the process. Then the plot forces the characters out of that gray area before they actually have to make tough choices, as it does in these kinds of movies. Blackhat makes up for forcing the characters into one course of action, because it becomes a satisfying action movie.
Director Michael Mann stages a climax with tons of extras. Nobody does that anymore, and if these are CGI crowd doubles they are amazingly convincing. Likewise there are some impressive stunts that I assume were practical. If they were CGI, the seams are so obscured in the background that it’s convincing. It’s either stellar practical work or amazing digital work, either way a win.
Some of the action is shakycam but Mann actually uses the camera jitters to hide impacts, which is both artistically useful, and practically useful so he doesn’t have to worry about a hit looking fake. Plus, Mann never did polished glamour action, so it’s not like it’s out of character for him to be gritty and shaky. A gunfight is loud and chaotic, but I think we follow the chase, and a later shootout has very clear geography.
I don’t know how much Blackhat ultimately gets right and I don’t care. In the sense that it may actually supposed to have been an intelligent geopolitical cyber-thriller, perhaps Blackhat is a failure because it’s not that. But if it accidentally delivered a big fun action movie instead, I’ll take it.