‘Blackhat’: Uneven cyberthriller

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As “Blackhat” makes clear, in the murky world of cybercrime and cyberespionage, the ethical lines between good and evil aren’t necessarily so well demarcated.

U.S. government officials surreptitiously enter the computer systems of foreign countries to make mischief. How different is it from the actions of the supposed ne’er-do-wells, who engage in the similar clandestine machinations?

“Blackhat” offers Nick Hathaway  (Chris Hemsworth), as an interestingly amalgamated character. He combines the brains of a computer geek with the fighting skills of a bad ass brawler.

Nick hails from a blue collar background and was raised by a steelworker dad. Following M.I.T., he was first incarcerated for his involvement in a fatal barroom fight. As Nick recounts, he arrived in Silicon Valley with a résumé tainted with a felony conviction. Despite Nick’s academic pedigree and formidable programming skills, he was unable to land a job.

Nick engaged in some celebrated stunts, ripping off banks through computer fraud. As Nick hastens to point out, he never ripped off individuals, just  businesses of dubious morality. He fancies himself as a modern day Robin Hood, redistributing the money from the rich to the less affluent.  However, Nick doesn’t seem to be particularly driven to exploit his skill set for self-enrichment.

So….what does motivate Nick? He savors the ability to flaunt his conspicuous intellect and outwit everyone else. Another character in the film articulates the ethos, “This isn’t about money. This isn’t about politics. I can target anyone, anything, anywhere.”

Eventually, Nick is convicted of a particularly disruptive mega scheme and sentenced to a fifteen year sentence in Federal prison.

When we first meet Nick, he is being attacked by a phalanx of club-wielding prison guards. He’s dragged to the warden’s office. Even from behind bars, Nick is still programming away, much to the chagrin of the authorities. Somehow, he has managed to dramatically increase the commissary accounts of his fellow prisoners.

Two near simultaneous events propel the narrative. Some savvy hacker uses malware to tap into the cooling system of a Chinese nuclear power plant and cause a meltdown. Then, the U.S. stock market is artificially manipulated to spike soybean futures.

Suddenly, two adversaries, the United States and China, must consider an alliance. An F.B.I. honcho, Henry Pollack (John Ovitz) expresses keenly felt reservations about sharing intelligence with the agency’s Chinese counterparts. However, one of his agents, Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) insists that the only way to track down the hacker is to pool investigative resources. She convinces her reluctant boss to allow her to liase with China’s director of cyberdefense, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom).

Chen determines that the man responsible for the Chinese meltdown and the U.S. stock market chaos are one in the same. He has appropriated malware, which had been designed by an old college classmate of his. It turns out to be Nick. Chen insists that enlisting Nick’s help is crucial to cracking the case.

One of the film’s most effective vignettes pits a Department of Justice attorney against the  incarcerated protagonist. The former offers Nick a temporary furlough from prison to help with the investigation. Nick rejects the deal, contending, “Why would I do that?” Nick demands that, in exchange for his assistance, the balance of his sentence be commuted.  Of course, the deal is predicated on the condition that the hacker is caught. Otherwise, Nick will be sent back to the slammer.

Sprung from prison, Nick is reunited with his old college friend, Chen. They will collaborate with Agent Barrett and Agent Mark Jessup (Holt McAloney), who is tasked with keeping a close watch on the ankle-braceletted Nick.

Joining them will be Chen’s beauteous sister, Lien (Wei Tanh), a network engineer. Do you suppose that there is any chance of a romantic entanglement between Nick and Lien or is her character in the film strictly for her brains?

Even without his Thor hammer, Hemsworth is thoroughly convincing in any scene that requires a display of brawniness or pugilistic propensities. Unfortunately, as a cerebrotonic  computer wonk, he strains credulity. Hemsworth struggles to get his tongue around nomenclature, routinely used by tekkies.

The film benefits from its supporting cast. Viola Davis is brilliant as always. Once again, she brings enormous depth to her underwritten character. She effectively conveys a sense of world-weariness in a post 9/11 age. As she did in the controversial “Lust, Caution,” Wei Tang infuses the  amorous elements with just the right edginess.  Playing the criminal mastermind, Spencer Garrett, presents an interesting bête noire for our hero. Unfortunately, his entry into the film is unduly delayed.

This is the first feature film helmed by Michael Mann since 2009’s “Public Enemies.” Some of the action scenes are mounted ineptly in a way that makes it impossible to discern what is actually going on. Could this be the same director, who helmed “Last of the Mohicans” and “Ali”? The finale scene reflects Mann’s skill at nighttime shoots. As a colorful parade marches through the streets of downtown Jakarta, it is juxtaposed with a key action scene.

The screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl broaches some interesting ideas. It provides an interesting perspective on international tensions and bureaucratic infighting. Unfortunately, the cyberliterate will scoff at the film’s depiction of code writing. Conversely, those who are not cyberliterate, will find the film confounding.

“Blackhat” ends up being a frustratingly uneven cyberthriller.

“Blackhat” ** ½ R (for R for violence and some language) 134 minutes

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Blackhat" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ1ZDlLImF8

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Blackhat” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ1ZDlLImF8

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lerneprose@gmail.com.


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