Blackhat (dir. Michael Mann)
The first few minutes of the new action thriller BLACKHAT seem to be leading audiences into a clichéd, brainless cyber drama. The camera slowly follows light blips as they travel around internal circuitry in a giant server, illustrating an in-progress hack. The 1990s style graphics made me worry that Director Michael Mann was somehow rehashing the scenes from 1995’s HACKERS. This circuit tracking servings a purpose in the film, not just in terms of plot; it is setting the mood for the rest of BLACKHAT. The film repeatedly lulls the audience into a sense of comfort just before yanking the rug out from under their theater seats. Just as we ease into the circuits and their trite paths, a giant nuclear meltdown in China brings our attention back to the film.
Chris Helmsworth stars as Hathaway, the too smart convict (which is, to me, the male equivalent to the female “hooker with a heart of gold”) who is using his prison sentence to catch up on music and reading. It turns out that Hathaway is the original architect for the virus which caused the meltdown and conveniently the college roommate of the lead Chinese investigator. Though everything in the film up to this point has been portrayed on celluloid times, BLACKHAT still manages to deliver the action while avoiding the most major action frustrations.
One particular strength of the film is that the characters are all smart. The film is incredibly well cast and diverse. Mann did not squander the talents of these brilliant actors and gave each of the characters both depth and something to do. Too often the women are left at home to cry or the black friend just waits to be killed first, but that is not the case here. Everyone in the film is likeable and has a backstory, which we are fed in very small pieces. Each character has depth and nuance, and each of them stays true to themselves.
The film also has a surprising lack of exposition. Being that much of the action involves computer hacking, Mann does not let the camera simply stare at characters explaining what they are doing as they bang on keyboards. All of the players understand what the other is doing (remember, they are not the typical dumb characters) and the audience is given just enough contextual information to understand what is going on. BLACKHAT shows instead of tells.
The characters’ relationships also feel quite real. These are very intelligent and well trained experts in a high stakes situation and all of them act as you would expect. When Hathaway and his former roommate are reunited they have a quick hug and then get down to business. When the team finds a giant lead that should get them the bad guy, there is no swelling music and celebration, they keep their heads down and keep working. The roommate and his sister have an obvious affection for one another, but there are no nostalgic flashbacks to underline their relationship because none are needed.
Mann somehow managed to do away with most of the major issues I have with action films. The characters are smart. Logistics (obtaining weapons, traveling, law enforcement, etc.) are shown as procedures and not solved by off-screen magic. Sex is not overly romanticized or dramatized. The film makes sense, and in doing so allows you to be drawn into this world of cyber espionage.