'Blackhat' fails to compute as a great thriller

By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I used to think algorithms had something to do with Caribbean music, blissfully unaware they were crucial to computers, let alone terrorism. Now, alas, with Kim Jong Un and Sony ’n’ at, we must all get with the online program of 21st-century warfare, which threatens to destroy society as we know and love-hate it.

If anyone can do razzle-dazzle justice to Cybercrime & Punishment, it’s “Miami Vice” maestro Michael Mann, whose “Blackhat” thriller opens with a malware computer RAT (Remote Access Tool) triggering an attack on a huge Hong Kong nuclear power plant. The result is chaos and a near-meltdown.

Simultaneously, somebody hacks into the Chicago Mercantile Trade Exchange’s system, sends soy futures skyrocketing through the roof and makes off with half a billion well-laundered bucks. Is there a connection? Bouncing their malware off proxy servers to stay invisible, the perpetrators and their motives are unknown — and something much more heinous is in the works.

This is a case for brilliant hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), except that Nick is doing 5-to-15 in a federal pen for some too-brilliant hacking in the past. Parts of the evil malware code have been traced to one he wrote in his youth, so — in a rare instance of cooperation — the American and Chinese governments join to spring him in exchange for his expertise. Assignment: to out-hack and identify the uberhacker in order to preserve his own and Western civilization’s survival.

It’s Eastern civilization’s survival, too, for which he’ll be relying on Chen (Leehom Wang), the chief of China’s cyberdefense team — and Nick’s old roommate at MIT — as well as Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang), a ’Net engineer whose brilliance complements Nick’s and who provides more than the usual cardboard love interest. Normally in such thrillers, it’s the girl’s job to provide one hot sex scene and then get in the way and need to be rescued. In this one, she and the boy have a real relationship that develops sexily.

Mr. Hemsworth (of “The Avengers” and “Thor” series fame) has serious sex appeal himself — a kind of buffed Brad Pitt with the mumbly diffidence of James Dean — but he’s no computer geek in appearance. I mean, how hard would it have been to give him glasses taped together in the middle for just a hint of nerdiness? Macho ain't mucho if you don't have a little something more. Or less.

Viola Davis (Oscar-nominated for “The Help” and star of TV’s “How to Get Away With Murder”) is fine as FBI Special Agent Barrett, despite a characteristically bad wig. Pittsburgh’s own Christian Borle (fresh from playing Smee opposite Christopher Walken’s Hook in the live TV “Peter Pan”) is a pleasant surprise in his small info-tech role.

The film’s bad title refers to villains in old Western movies who were always identifiable by their black hats — in this case, hackers who commit cybercrimes for money or sheer malice. The story was inspired by the Stuxnet “weaponized” computer worm, jointly designed by the U.S. and Israel, that wreaked havoc on Iran's nuclear centrifuges and uranium enrichment facilities in 2010.

Give director Mann credit for injecting no more computer gibberish than necessary — and followable — by old fogies like me. Mirabile dictu, his characters never need to log on to their laptops or endure slow connections. They’ve got instant Wi-Fi any time, any place, in subterranean Malaysian storm drains or on the run.

Give him credit, too, for terrific atmospherics: Mr. Mann loves urban landscapes, especially at night, and you can feel — almost smell — the thick, languid air and nifty Hong Kong harbor houseboat lights.

The trouble with this new breed of cybercrooks is that key-clicking doesn’t quicken the viewer’s pulse, and their nefarious activities aren’t intrinsically photogenic. Mr. Mann loves shootouts (don’t we all?), and virtual ones on a laptop don’t cut it. His compelling pyrotechnics are sparing, never stupidly excessive — but his default reliance is on TV devices: overlong chase scenes, requiring Dramamine to endure his “Miami Vice”-like grip on hand-held camera shots.

Those slick skills are in service here of a flawed script by Morgan Davis Foehl. He and Mr. Mann worked extensively with ex-cybercriminals and police to produce it. But how could someone so attentive to verisimilitude and techno details pay so little attention to basic credulity? Some 3,000 extras were employed for the film’s climactic grand finale in Jakarta. It is visually stunning — and stunningly disingenuous. The revelation of the villains’ identity and ultimate objective is less an “Aha!” than a “Huh?” moment.

“Blackhat” is stylishly entertaining, but it’s no “Heat” (1995) or “Insider” (1999) — Mr. Mann’s previous gems. The fact of its early January release-dumping speaks volumes. He has tried but nobly failed to make the new cutting-edge cyber film.

Come to think of it, there still hasn’t been a better computer crime-thriller in the 47 years since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.”

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at parispg48@aol.com.

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