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Review: ‘Blackhat’ isn’t getting past any quality filters (Includes first-hand account)

While visible and physically damaging terrorism continues to be an everyday threat, there is an invisible type of violence on the rise. As technology develops an increasing presence in every form of business and life, it becomes easier to inflict massive damage without ever coming into physical contact with the target. Many movies have endeavoured to portray the world of hackers on the big screen and each new effort demonstrates how difficult it is to effectively capture this domain for an audience. Blackhat is Michael Mann‘s attempt at depicting a global clash of hacker vs. hacker.

When an elite hacker triggers an explosion at a Chinese power plant followed by a superficial rise in the U.S. stock market, the connection between the two events is a mystery except that they were committed by the same coder. Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) enlists the help of his sister, Lien (Wei Tang), a network engineer when he enters a joint task force with the Americans to investigate the incidents. He completes his team by insisting they release Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) from prison, where he’s serving a 13-year sentence for electronic bank robbery. Together with Special Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), they track the code from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta until they’re finally face-to-face with the man behind the keyboard.

There appears to be a common need in these pictures to visualize the movement of data. Mann takes viewers into a microscopic view of data travelling within computer processers and microchips via light and electronic signals à la The Matrix and Hackers. However anyone with motion sickness be warned, riding shotgun with the data transfer, particularly the first, is quite the rollercoaster.

There are some significant flaws with the picture and unless you can switch off your ability to detect them, they can be a source of frequent annoyance. Movie goers familiar with Mann’s work will be well-aware of his fondness for the hand-held camera that is greatly misused in this film, especially when the characters are involved in any sort of action sequence. The sound design is horrendous. Background noise suddenly disappears and the volume of speakers’ voices are altered mid-sentence. The plot’s progression is frequently predictable with the most obvious aspect being the inevitable romance that also foreshadows how the end will unfold. These so-called stylistic choices just seem ill-conceived and/or unfinished. And it’s unquestionably longer than is necessary at two hours and 13 minutes.

Conversely, there are some redeemable qualities as well. Parts of the narrative involving the hunt for the “black hat” hacker are engaging. There’s an attempt not to make the film too expository by incorporating key information naturally in conversations, rather than having one character explain certain terminology to another in place of the audience. In the same vein when someone points to a computer screen indicating they’ve discovered some important code marker, it still just looks like gibberish. References to the unstable relationship between China and the United States creates some interesting hurdles for the team, though their solutions are unsurprising.

Hemsworth is credible as the perfect combination of attractive genius who can hold his own in a fight. Davis generally has a furrowed brow whether she’s playing by or breaking the rules; an expression reproduced by Holt McCallany who plays the U.S. Marshall assigned to watch Hathaway. Though both actors are plucked from Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Wang is acceptable as the Chinese specialist with American ideals and yet Tang is consistently timid even when taking a stance.

There’s a fairly decent film buried under all the lazily implemented typical-Mann techniques and predictableness, but it takes some work to tease it out.

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis and Wei Tang

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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