Blackhat

Michael Mann's topical new cyberthriller really is ripped from today's headlines

Chris Hemsworth in 'Blackhat.' Credit: Legendary Pict/UniversalPictures

I don't know about you, but for me any movie year that kicks off with a Michael Mann mind-bender can't be all cinematic malware. The fact that the cyber-thrills coursing through Blackhat come on the tail of the recent Sony hacking and reported threats from North Korea is just icing on the data cake. Break down the film, and it's just good hackers versus the blackhats, a Western in digital drag. Put Mann on the case, as director, producer and co-screenwriter, and you're in for high-style, high-voltage gamesmanship. Short attention spans need not apply, which may explain why the studio has buried the film in the box-office black hole of January.

Blackhat stars Chris Hemsworth as the studliest computer genius in, like, ever. But you don't see People's Sexiest Man Alive until Mann is good and ready. The sensational opening shot, about five minutes long, follows a RAT. That's a Remote Access Tool, a computer worm similar to the one that attacked an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010. This time the RAT infiltrates a Hong Kong computer network that controls a nuclear reactor. The globe, as always, is at risk, unless the blackhat is blacked out.

Wang Leehom plays Capt. Chen Dawai, the MIT-trained Chinese military bigwig in charge of bringing down the cyber-terrorist. He can't do it alone, of course. Enter Thor, er, Hemsworth as Hathaway, the captain's college roomie, whose hacking exploits have put him in a federal pen for 15 years. After the Chinese make a deal with the FBI, in the formidable person of Viola Davis, Hathaway is sprung so the good guys can get on the case before more damage is done. The Chicago Mercantile Trade Exchange has already been hacked and raised bloody hell with soy futures. What's next, Armageddon? Could be.

The plot is overloaded, and no one (except maybe the fan base desirous of seeing Hemsworth shirtless) needed sexual sparks to erupt between Hathaway and a hottie network engineer (Tang Wei), who happens to be the captain's sister.

Acting isn't the point here. Mann and ace cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh are eager to keep the action percolating in locations that include the neon blaze of Hong Kong and the exotic sizzle of Jakarta.

Best of all is the excitement of watching Mann use his kinetic powers as a filmmaker to tackle the new face of 21st-century warfare. What Blackhat tells us about the best coders – the choices they make to individualize their programs, the different ways they extend their abstractions to have an effect on the real world – also applies to the best filmmakers. In Mann's iconic crime stories, from Manhunter and Thief to Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, he uses color, design, editing, music and camera movement to track a flesh-and-blood villain. They still exist. But a gun, like the one wielded by Hathaway, is no match against an invisible force – a code, a worm, a virus that can attack and even annihilate without leaving a trace. Talk about timely. The urgent, provoking Blackhat is art imitating the perils of cyber-life, and Mann is just the groundbreaking artist to do it.