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Film in review – “Blackhat”

Blackhat_posterMovies about cyber-hacking are difficult to make because watching a guy sitting at a computer is not exactly thrilling. But trying to show the precise language of the programming is going to lose most of us at “.exe .” Director Michael Mann at least tries to put some twist on it, with a CGI-enhanced journey through the computer’s innards to show us the sudden devastation wreaked by the introduction of a virus. But of course, playing with special effects has to eventually give way to a real plot using actual actors, and “Blackhat” does at least do that, though the casting is curiously spotty.

The good news is Chris Hemsworth. This young star radiates a brilliant menace as Nicholas Hathaway, a genius M.I.T.-trained computer programmer who succumbed to the dark side and became a cyber thief, for which he has been languishing in prison for several years, the very epitome of underutilization.

But it turns out that a prank virus program he worked on with a college buddy got out into cyberspace, and the bad guys are using it, first to disable a nuclear reactor in China, then to destabilize a stock exchange in order to take some quick profits. The FBI and the NSA admit that they’re in over their heads on this one. The good news is that the Chinese government is actually willing to work with their American counterparts in fighting these invisible terrorists, but there’s a catch: they want Nicholas Hathaway, sprung from prison and free to hack whomever he wants, including, it would seem, the NSA itself.

Hathaway’s time in prison has given him the con man’s point of view about personal motivation. He sees through every ploy the haughty white-collared guys throw at him, but his rough-hewn mojo turns out to be useful when the cyber-bullies decide to use real thugs to intimidate all the nice-guy geeks and nerds. Director Mann also gets to indulge in a Chinese-American détente, in the form of a romantic liaison between Hathaway and his Chinese counterpart, Lien Chen (Wei Tang)… but unfortunately, there’s not much spark there. The action does get lively when the chief bad guy insists on meeting Hathaway face-to-face, and their personal cat-and-mouse during a cacophonous street parade is better than most car chases.

But Mann is also content to let the viewer waddle in befuddlement as he takes us rapidly through subplots in obscure Indonesian restaurants or subjects us to FBI/DOJ/NSA turf wars that manage to obscure even a standout actress like Viola Davis. And there are times when Hemsworth looks like he’s strutting through some Esquire magazine photo shoot. Admittedly, it’s a challenge showing exactly how the smartest guy in the room is in fact beyond genius without simply making him quicker on the uptake in all the dialogue. The viewer still has to expend considerable effort to suspend disbelief – and typically, mental exertion is not what moviegoers sign up for by expectantly entering the darkened theater.
“Blackhat” is slick and edgy, but also a bit dark and obscure, and a little too long. What saves it from tediousness is the pure charisma of Hemsworth. But there may be no known cure for its nervous, jittery style of old school cloak-and-dagger wrapped in glossy high-tech gadgetry.

RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.