Blackhat is a very good thriller from a master of the form. Michael Mann’s been crafting sleek, propulsive films for decades now, and this high-tech whodunit is among his most accomplished. Like his 1995 cops-and-robbers Heat or 2006 procedural reimagining Miami Vice (possibly his best), he here takes a crime drama setup that could easily be routine – a bad hacker is causing havoc, so he must be found and stopped – and goes about filling it with artful, elliptical moodiness glowing with glamorous framing and grim dangers. It’s another of his terse and exciting men-at-work movies, flowing with jargon and tech as people at the height of their chosen professions pit their skills against formidable opponents. There’s energy in his intelligence, and the romanticism he finds in human connections, and the frayed nerves of people forced to choose between their relationships and their missions.
But the added digital element, in which real world consequences can zip anonymously (or nearly so) through a web of interconnected devices, adds a tangible, dangerous, element to the relationships charted. It begins with a mysterious hacker who overloads a Chinese nuclear power plant with a strategically deployed malware and a few swift keystrokes. Mann plays out this sequence with procedures forcefully visualized, starting on a monitor, then zooming into a microscopic view of shimmering data zipping through microchips and fiberoptic cable, before pulling up at another keyboard on the other side of the world. The digital journey viewed so closely looks like the usual beauty of a nighttime Mann skyline viewed through a trip through a wormhole. It’s routine and scary, devastating effects from the tiniest mysterious machinations.
The dangerous hacker becomes a serial cyber-attacker when he manipulates commodities prices in Chicago. Authorities are afraid those attacks are only the beginning. Needing to sort through the noise to find digital breadcrumbs that lead to their suspect, a brilliant Chinese security expert (Leehom Wang) agrees to a joint taskforce with FBI agents (Viola Davis, John Ortiz, and Holt McCallany), so long as his old MIT roommate (Chris Hemsworth) can be let out of prison to help. He’s a fit, genius hacker, the kind who’d read Foucault in between pushups, and the one who wrote the source code for the software this unknown cyber-assailant hijacked for nefarious purposes. The Americans reluctantly agree to the terms. Old friends are reunited, tenuous alliances are made with reluctant colleagues, and a romance burgeons between the convict and his friend’s sister (Wei Tang), also a computer whiz helping the investigation. In typical Michael Mann style, these dramas of human connection are sublimated in the propulsive plot, tense melodrama expressed through action.
This is every bit a Mann film, and all the pleasures that implies. He makes a lean script by Morgan Davis Foehl into beautiful pulp. It’s shot in gorgeously textured cinematography, stormy skies and grainy blackness, pale city lights and bleach white sun. (To see what director of photography Stuart Dryburgh does with digital cameras here is to make bleary digital productions look all the worse.) The chase picture plotting hunts down a mystery through a globetrotting search for clues mixed with a paranoid high-tech hackathon, the rapid pace told through artful images and granular specificity. Whole sweeping emotions are told in a tossed off frame, a man free from prison taking an extra beat to stare across an open tarmac, a dying woman looking up, her last sight a skyscraper casting pale light upon the night sky. Meanwhile, details pile up around them, keys clacking, phones tracking, gunshots carrying oomph and variety.
Here is a movie that respects its audience's intelligence, rarely slowing down for info dumps. It’s juggling a complicated storyline and a fine ensemble while working through intersecting multi-step conspiracies. Instead of telling us what’s happening, it simply lets the goings on go on. We join stories midstream, watching characters behave and react, piecing together plans and histories as they unfold gesture by gesture. It’s a film on the move with twists and sudden violence, but also the patience to envelop the proceedings with a mood, lamenting missed interpersonal connections, celebrating small moments of intimacy, alternately exhilarated and worried when confronted with the scope of virtual damage in the real world. It’s a thriller that’s entertaining, yes, but also hits hard with intoxicating style and tension, action and emotion as intertwined as the real world and the digital.