Movies about computer hackers, well, they tend to…kinda suck. I mean hacking isn’t really a spectator sport, is it? Which is why every movie ever made about hackers features the same ludicrous stereotypes; upbeat techno music, cyber raves, characters with names like Neo, Acid Burn, Warlock and the Plague, scrolling green-on-black kanji, the ability to hack remotely into impregnable computer systems like the Pentagon’s or the NSA’s in mere seconds while a Russian hooker gives you a gobble and Vinnie Jones has a gun to your head. Planes fall out of the sky, traffic lights are sabotaged, the stock market crashes. Anything to make sitting at a keyboard look vaguely exciting.

The reality of hacking and cybercrime, watching a sallow, spotty, oily-skinned nerd in a Hawaiian shirt, his pale, albino face lit only by the cold glow of his computer screen, bashing away at his keyboard for months on end and developing piles while guzzling gallons of Mountain Dew and Red Bull, just isn’t that glamorous.

And actual hackers? Imagine being at a dinner party with Edward Snowden, Gary McKinnon AND Julian Assange. With scintillating personalities like that in the room, you’ll be praying for a SEAL team to kick in the door and black bag you for a cheeky spot of extraordinary rendition. Being waterboarded and having your toenails pulled out in some CIA black site by a sweaty Eastern European mercenary has gotta be preferable to listening to Assange mispronounce data for the umpteenth time. Face it – hackers and hacking are kinda boring. Thankfully Blackhat, Michael Mann’s first film since 2009’s disappointing Public Enemies (Johnny Depp performance as Dillinger drawing on Dr Caligari’s somnambulist), is a film about hacking in the same way as Moby Dick is a big dumb book about a whale.

In China, a cyber terrorist hacks the mainframe of a nuclear power plant, shutting down the plant’s coolant pumps and causing a deadly meltdown. In Chicago, hacking manipulates the stock exchange, causing fortunes to be made and lost. Tasked with tracking the hacker responsible for the attack on the power station, Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a member of China’s cyber warfare unit, recruits his computer programmer sister Lien (Tang Wei) to aid him and travels to the US to join a joint taskforce led by hard-bitten FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). There he reveals that the RAT (Random Access Tool) programme the hacker used to gain entry to both the power plant and the stock exchange was co-written by himself and old college buddy Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), now a convict serving 15 years for cyber crimes.

Temporarily released from prison to aid the task force and with the promise of a pardon if his contribution leads to the hacker’s capture, Hathaway follows the money, tracking the hacker and his accomplices across the globe from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and beyond, always one step behind as he comes to realise that the attacks on the power plant and the stock exchange were mere warm-ups for the hacker’s true objective, leading to a desperate, bloody final confrontation…

Again shooting in digital, there’s a beauty and lyricism, almost a surreality to Blackhat’s imagery, a raw immediacy that recalls the visual aesthetic of tabloid news jounalism, Mann favouring murky night shoots that erupt without warning into desperate violence and blistering, percussive gunfire. But it’s the quiet moments that fascinate; Hemsworth’s ex-con tasting his first free air in years, a character’s focus on the Hong Kong skyline as they lie dying, the revelatory moments when the pieces fall in place. The latest in a long line of taciturn, alienated, existentialist, outlaw antiheroes that stretches back to Mann’s first feature The Jericho Mile, men who seek to self-define themselves and their world through their actions, their professionalism, their commitment to action, their refusal to be bound by the emotional ties they can never ignore and that almost always are their undoing, there’s a tactile physicality to Hathaway’s ex-con that extends to the film itself and we watch as his genius cyber god regresses from the 21st century techno ubermensch we first meet to something more Darwinian as he jury-rigs himself primitive body armour, taping books and magazines to his torso and stomach as he hides makeshift weapons (knives, a sharpened screwdriver) around his body in preparation for his final confrontation with the machine gun-toting high tech bad guys.

Similarly, while Mann does indulge in the clichéd de rigueur sequence where the audience travels into the bowels of a computer to see the world at the binary level of silicon chip and processor, there’s a pleasing physicality to his hacking scenes that’s grounded in reality, Tang Wei’s heroine forced to rely on her feminine wiles and a convincing back story to charm a bank security guard into allowing her to plug into his PC the stick drive that will enable Hemsworth to remotely hack the bank’s systems or Hemsworth having to suit up in hazmat gear and soak up some millisieverts by physically entering the radioactive power plant and retrieving vital information from a damaged computer by simply pulling the hard drive from it.

Gorgeous, visceral and thrilling, in Blackhat, Mann has succeeded in creating an arthouse action movie that marks a welcome return to form.

DVD Review: Blackhat
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