Posted by Joel Copling on January 21, 2015

"Blackhat" is more lean, patient, procedural filmmaking from Michael Mann, a director whose name is more or less synonymous with L.A. these days, after the likes of 1995's "Heat" and 2004's "Collateral." With this, his first film since 2009's "Public Enemies," Mann takes on Hong Kong in a cyber-centric thriller as heavy on complexly superficial character development (very basic elements to the humans on display that easily define their position in the narrative without relegating any of them to a stock role) as it is on meat-and-potatoes, action-movie elements (firefights of a particularly assaultive noise level--I mean that in a good way--and full conversations of highly technical exposition).

A nuclear reactor crashes under mysterious circumstances, and shortly thereafter, soy futures rise and tank the livestock market. Both are attacked by a cyber-terrorist using the same bit of code (with only slight, but distinctive, differences) and, what's worse, Chinese special agent Dawai (Wang Leehom) recognizes it as the steroidal version of a code he wrote himself as a prank. The co-writer was Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), whose current 13-year prison sentence Dawai, his sister Lien (Tang Wei), and the F.B.I. (most prominently led by Viola Davis' Agent Carol Barrett) commute in order to use him to follow the code. The rabbit hole is a twisted one that takes them across Southeast and islandic Asia in an attempt to stop an even deadlier meltdown.

Morgan Davis Foehl's screenplay is a muscular one, trimming character and narrative fat with the exception of a romance between Nick and Lien that mostly exists to serve its purpose. Even so, a surprising element of the script is its attentiveness to priorities: After Dawai discovers this relationship in an amusingly awkward moment during an overall scene of urgency, Foehl allows the two men, who both have Lien's ultimate best interests at heart, to hash it out like gentlemen. The big boss at the F.B.I. above Barrett tells her not to evoke 9/11 on him, but he just doesn't understand, says she, and given a moment of personal reflection later on, she knows what she's talking about.

These are small moments, but they are essential on a deeper level. In a film actively about blunt-force impact, it's a necessity to have some sort of tangible stake in the outcome, and the beginning of the third act certainly provides that. The villains are almost literally a nameless crew (headed by actors Yorick van Wageningen and an intimidating Ritchie Coster, neither of whose characters seems to have been given a name to be credited online that this writer can find), and as villains go, they could be stronger. But there is an entropic sort of mystique to their presence all the same, and a climax set amidst a crowd of torch-wielding paradegoers almost just makes them blank faces in a crowd.

The actors are up to the job of spouting off urgent stretches of exposition to each other, Hemsworth at the front of it giving a strong performance as Nick Hathaway and sharing palpable chemistry with Tang, whose English-language debut as Lien is rock-solid. But it is Davis who impresses most, what with a sense of world-weariness behind it's-just-business mannerisms and the occasional wise-crack. The action sequences are of the handheld variety, but even this is given an almost expressionistic quality: Spatial geography, for Mann, is important but secondary to the sense that these characters are just bodies in motion--pawns in the chess game of some particularly bad men. It's good vs. evil on an elemental level--one could almost say that it's binary.

Film Information

Chris Hemsworth (Nick Hathaway), Viola Davis (Carol Barrett), Tang Wei (Chen Lien), Wang Leehom (Chen Dawai), Holt McCallany, John Ortiz (Henry Pollack), Ritchie Coster, Yorick van Wageningen, William Mapother (Rich Donahue).

Directed by Michael Mann and written by Morgan Davis Foehl.

Rated R (violence, language).

135 minutes.

Released on January 16, 2015.