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by Peter Sobczynski

"Broadband Of The Hand"
4 stars

As most savvy moviegoers have figured out by now, the first month of the calendar year is a fairly dire time at the local multiplex. Once you get past the holdovers from the holiday season and the expanded releases of the big Oscar bait titles, the pickings are pretty slim--trashy horror films, grim comedies and once-promising titles that just did not come together for whatever reason and which are being dumped by their studios in the quickest and quietest way possible. As a result, many eyebrows were raised when it was announced that "Blackhat" would be making its debut in the middle of January. After all, it makes sense to put out stuff like "Taken 3" and "The Wedding Ringer" at that time--even the most optimistic of moviegoers would struggle to muster up anything resembling enthusiasm regarding such titles--but this was not just a slick and expensively mounted techno-thriller but the new film from Michael Mann, the hugely admired director of such favorites as "Thief," "Manhunter," "The Insider" and the modern crime classic "Heat." Sure, his stature in the eyes of some has dimmed in recent years (wrongly, in my opinion) in the wake of such divisive and wildly underrated works as "Collateral," "Miami Vice" and "Public Enemies" but still, to see a film by the likes of someone like him relegated to the kind of release date more suitable for things with the word "chainsaw" in the title was a shock and led observers to wonder--"Just how bad is it?"

As it turns out, "Blackhat" is not bad at all--in fact, it is considerably better than that. I don't claim to understand the reason why it is being put out in January but it would be a shame if audiences stayed away in the mistaken belief that it was a bomb. This is a stylish, gripping and very entertaining globe-trotting thriller dealing with a topic that couldn't be more relevant at this moment--cyber-criminals and their ability to wreak unimaginable amounts of damage with nothing more than a couple strokes of a keyboard--in a smart and exciting manner that doesn't rely solely on empty-headed chase scenes or shoot-outs to keep younger and duller viewers interested. It may not quite rise up to the level of something like "Heat" (though one could probably count the number of crime films that have in the last 20 years on one hand) but if there were more films like this one around right now, going to the movies in January would begin to feel more like a genuine pleasure instead of a dreary slog of a job.

In the opening scenes, an unknown hacker begins wreaking havoc across the globe by instigating a cyber-attack on nuclear power plants in China and the U.S. utilizing a malicious computer code--while the latter attempt fails, one of the reactors at the Chinese plant melts down as a result, destroying the plant and killing or injuring many people in the process. A few days later, there is another attack on a U.S. commodities exchange that artificially runs up the price of soy futures to astronomical levels. The strange thing is that there appears to be no rhyme or reason for the attacks--no one has claimed responsibility and no one has made any ransom demands to get them to stop. While investigating the attacks in conjunction with the FBI, Chinese government security agent Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) makes an even stranger discovery--a sizable chunk of the code used to appears to be based in large part that he co-wrote with his roommate at MIT as a lark years earlier.

That roommate, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), is now languishing in prison for committing various cyber-crimes against evil banks ("I don't burn people") and Dawai is convinced that the best way to track down the hacker is to have the government furlough Hathaway in exchange for his help. This is a tough sell for Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), the FBI agent in charge of the American end of the operation, but she is finally able to convince her superiors that it is for the best. At first, Hathaway has little interest in helping but after putting up a token resistance, he agree to help out in exchange for a permanent release if the mystery hacker is caught and is soon hot in pursuit alongside Dawai, Barrett and Chen Lien (Tang Wei), another brilliant computer analyst who just happens to be Dawai's sister and an ideal potential love interest for Hathaway, on a quest that takes them from Los Angeles to China to Indonesia and Malaysia.

Thanks to the likes of "Thief," "Manhunter," "Heat," "Collateral," "Miami Vice" and "Public Enemies," films which have explored the fine and occasionally blurry lines between cops and criminals with a fascination with their professionalism and ethical codes of the best practitioners of both worlds, an absolute obsession for the details of how they do everything from crack major cases or impenetrable fences to how they sit in a diner and an unparalleled ability to create and execute stunning action sequence that are exquisitely designed and choreographed while still maintaining a feel of total authenticity, Michael Mann has long been one of the top names in the crime movie genre. In many ways, "Blackhat" is a perfect fit with those other crime sagas but rather than simply repeating himself, Mann has set new challenges for himself and for the most parts meets them. For example, it is easy enough to stage and execute an elaborate set-piece involving the cracking of a safe or the precisely timed robbery of a bank in order to present the idea that a crime has taken place. However, how does one go about depicting the far less visceral, though equally destructive, notion of a cyber-crime where the pull of a trigger has been replaced by the click of a "Return" key? Mann tackles this question head-on at the top of a film with a fairly ingenious example of pure visual storytelling that begins with a look at the illuminated grid from high above Earth and then plunges us directly into the innards of a computer system as the malware is unleashed to do its bidding. Of course, being zapped inside a computer is nothing new, I suppose, but Mann presents it in such a visually startling manner that he takes away the breath of most viewers before they have even had a chance to get their coats off.

This does not mean that Mann is shirking his duties when it comes to presenting more conventional action scenes in the slightest. Having already created what may be the greatest extended gun battle in the history of American cinema with the still-stunning bank robbery-gone-bad in "Heat," he no doubt recognizes that to try to top that would be an exercise in futility but when it comes to pulling thrilling moments of kinetic action seemingly out of nowhere, he continues to be without peer. There are a couple of gun battles here--I won't give any additional details but you will know them when you see them--that are little masterpieces of the form that find a striking balance between the expected stylized thrills and the need to maintain both a certain degree of plausibility and a respected for the spatial relations of the key participants. These scenes are so wonderfully staged that they manage to do the near-impossible and keep one from wondering where exactly a hacker like Hathaway managed to acquire his highly impressive marksmanship skills. (Must have played a lot of "Call of Duty" back in the day.)

One of the things that critics of Michael Mann have found themselves harping on over the last few years has been his reliance on digital photography over the course of his last few films--to them, the results have been unattractive messes whose visual flaws are further exacerbated by his decision to shoot his stories largely at night. I am one of those who would almost always prefer to see a movie that has been shot on film as opposed to digital video but when the format is utilized with the skill that Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh demonstrate here, even I am willing to admit that digital can be quite striking when in the right hands. In hiss earlier films, Mann was celebrated (and occasionally derided) for his ultra-slick visual style in which it was apparent that every single item on the screen, no matter how seemingly slight or inconsequential, served a unique aesthetic purpose to the complete picture that he was trying to present. In his later films, however, Mann has chosen to reinvent his entire aesthetic by merging this glossy stylishness with the rougher, run-and-gun style afforded by shooting in digital. The results may be challenging to those expecting the usual action film look but for those willing to embrace what Mann is going for, some of the effects that are achieved here (especially a climactic fight staged amidst a torchlight parade in Jakarta's Papua Square) are quite extraordinary.

As much of a Michael Mann partisan as I am, critical honesty requires me to report that there are a few hiccups along the way--the screenplay (by first-timer Morgan Davis Foehl) is occasionally hampered by clunky exposition, the unnecessary romantic subplot (like everyone else in the cast, Hemsworth and Wei are attractive and charismatic as all get out but this element just seems perfunctory, though it does have a nice payoff where the brother catches them together in bed and doesn't make a big deal out of it) and a villain who, when finally revealed, is not quite as impressive in the flesh as in theory. (Of course, one could argue that in the case of the latter, this is sort of the point, but never mind.) However, when "Blackhat" is firing on all cylinders, and it does so far more often than not, it stands so far apart from the competition that they hardly seem to be part of the same genre. While most current action film are little more than expensive television, Mann is out there creating art and like most great art, it will no doubt prove to be divisive--at the screening I attended, some audience members seemed to be thrilled while others were clearly less so by the time the end credits rolled. However, even if "Blackhat" is not quite A-level Michael Mann in the vein of "Heat" or "Manhunter," it offers more genuine cinematic pleasures than anyone could rightly hope for and if there are many films of its type to emerge this year that are demonstrably better than it, then 2015 should prove to be an impressive year for moviegoing after all.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26880&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/15/15 18:20:27
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User Comments

8/26/20 Jack Sommersby Great-looking but contextually vapid. 2 stars
9/26/15 mr.mike Flick is just OK but Hemsworth was damn good in it. 3 stars
1/25/15 Bob Dog Wacky film that knows it's wacky - - Styl-a-rific!!!! 3 stars
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  16-Jan-2015 (R)
  DVD: 12-May-2015


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