In China, there is a crisis occurring at a nuclear power plant, for someone has breached the building’s security. Not to say that someone has illegally entered the premises, what has actually happened is that a hacker has entered their computer system and sabotaged the cooling facility, causing the fuel rods to overheat and explode. In itself, this is an act of terrorism, but is there more to it? Is it a political attack or could this anonymous entity have something more financial to gain? That is what the Chinese authorities have to counter and consider, and they assign official Dawai Chen (Leehom Wang) to the case, who contacts the FBI in the United States for help. They are already on it, and opt to recruit an unlikely assistant at Chen's request…
That’s right, they invite Thor, the Norse god of thunder, to offer his hacking skills to be implemented in this mystery – ah, no, not really, but they might as well have done in this attempt by director Michael Mann to be as up to the minute as possible in his subject matter. He was still making a thriller, which was his stock in trade, but his interest in the latest technology informed the dramatic angle, with the result that you had a collection of gunfights and explosions going off alternating with scenes of the star tapping commands into keyboards and frowning at monitors, which he might have thought was cinematic, but hadn’t really been entertaining since the nineteen-eighties heyday of computer-obsessed movies.
Back then, those computers could more or less do anything, they were in essence magic, and the movies reflected that, yet come the twenty-first century and the machines were ubiquitous in our lives and we were a lot more savvy about what they were capable of, and creating a living, breathing supermodel by scanning in some magazine photos wasn’t going to cut it. Then again, Blackhat owed something to the nineties sci-fi flop Hackers, in that it went to extraordinary lengths to make the activity look exciting and that included special graphic effects: the opening five minutes of this were almost entirely taken up with the camera following the baddies’ commands along wires and cables and into circuit boards, as if Mann had recently screened Tron and thought, that’s the way to do it! But was it?
The main trouble was that while computer crime is a very serious subject, for some reason it didn’t make for an absorbing couple of hours at the cinema, and sure enough Blackhat flopped since to audiences it didn’t seem interesting enough to spend their precious time on. It was pretty blatant how Mann had endeavoured to get around the issues he had foreseen, basically treat the story as if its star Chris Hemsworth was not so much a superhero, but as James Bond, played by a musclebound slab of beefcake, bedding the leading lady (Wei Tang) in a matter of minutes of screen time after their first meeting, and globetrotting around various exotic locations, regularly resorting to violence that he had down pat as if trained by Special Forces. Not bad for a bloke who’s supposed to spend most of his days staring at a screen, and sadly utterly implausible no matter how well-researched Mann’s team claimed to have made it.
Imagine Bond as an IT expert and you had some idea of what this was like. There were certainly interesting concerns to be raised by the potential for organised crime, and even a small cell of criminals down to a lone wolf in cyberspace, being able to bring corporations and governments to their knees with their mastery of technology, but you wouldn’t find them in Blackhat as it looked like some science fiction yarn instead of events that could take place in the real world. Not to mention that governments themselves had spies in force to hack away at their rivals and threats, though that went largely unexplored here. Mann worked up a mood of anything goes when computers are involved, which in itself was reminiscent of what had gone before in the thriller subgenre, but you never forgot you were watching a movie as there was too much of the high concept and not enough of the grit or even the mundane that curiously could have sold it better. Music credited to Harry Gregson Williams, though he denied it.
American writer/director whose flashy, dramatic style has made for considerable commerical success on the big and small screen. After writing for television during the late 70s, he made his debut with the thriller Thief. The Keep was a failed horror adaptation, but Mann's TV cop show Miami Vice was a massive international success, while 1986's Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, was one of the decade's best thrillers.
Last of the Mohicans was a rip-roaring period adventure, Heat a dynamic if overlong cops 'n' robbers story, and The Insider a gripping real-life conspiracy thriller. 2002's Ali, Mann's much-touted biography of the legendary boxer, was a bit of an anti-climax, but as ever, stylishly rendered. Mann's next film was the thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as a ruthless contract killer, and his big screen updating of Miami Vice divided opinion, as did his vintage gangster recreation Public Enemies. His cyber-thriller Blackhat was a resounding flop.