Blackhat (2015): Michael Mann

Subsumed in the Oscar wake of January 2015 came another Michael Mann camera shaker. Critically and commercially, it was a dud. The onscreen action, while explosive, didn’t come enough, and a strange editing choice derailed any chance of hitting with the people.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Superhacker Nick Hathaway can get out of jail free if he catches the superhacker who blew up a Chinese nuclear plant. 

Hero (6/10)

Chris Hemsworth, slumming it with Michael Mann when not donning Thor’s cape, plays Nick Hathaway, the World’s Greatest Hacker and a slick-haired street tough. We first meet Hathaway in a regular old prison, where he is maced and thrown into solitary, where he immediately starts pushups. You can take the player out the game…

Hathaway was an MIT student in a past life, which is how he befriended Chen Dawai and why we believe his speedy thinking. He might be an agoraphobe, or perhaps, when he sees the wide open spaces of an airport tarmac, he just can’t recall seeing wide open spaces, but he has no other adjustment issues.

The movie quickly establishes that he first went to jail for fighting, he “traded academia for gladiator academy,” and only later for hacking. This establishment is important, because we would not believe the movie when he dispatches a handful of street toughs in the restaurant. But we do. Right? We do?

Hathaway’s also a man of justice. He wants to stop the hacker blowing up mike plants, like everyone, but he also believes he deserved his prison sentence. The one for hacking. He says he should do the time because he went and did the crime. I don’t think he used exactly those words–his were more eloquent–but that’s why I’m here and someone else wrote the screenplay.

Hathaway’s least believable aspect was his fearlessness. We don’t know exactly how long he’s been in the slammer, but any time in there should change a man’s worldview and personality. He should be scared of what he’s doing. Hemsworth never wavers when dangerous schemes and dangerous situations fall upon him. You need him to hack NSA code? No problem. Everyone clear the room. He needs to face down several hired mercenaries? Get him some sharp screwdrivers.

Hathaway hits near superhuman status when he and Dawai reach the nuclear plant. Earlier, someone at the FBI said the control room was hot. I didn’t realize he meant it was literally hot, like 138 degrees. Hathaway and Dawai enter, where they have eight minutes before dying, because they need the actual hard drive to reconstruct malware.

The plant technician who accompanies them overheats and collapses in moments. While he’s catatonic, Hathaway is banging an ax on the door enclosing the servers. He pulls out exactly the right one, as if he’s in a sauna and forced to do a little work.

Hathaway is the one man for the job, because he has no limits. Barrett spills the beans  about Black Widow, the NSA’s secret code reconstruction tool, and he needs access. She also warns him that if he fails, he dies. Hathaway, given the moral choice, chooses to fight, because he’s a fighter.

Villain (4/10)

Blackhat barely shows its lead villain, a hacker named Sadak. We don’t see his face until after more than an hour and a half of screen time. In retrospect, this might have been a wise decision.

Sadak is played by a Dutch man named Yorick van Wageningen, and if anyone ever was born to act, it’s a guy named Yorick van Wageningen. Sadak’s hacking skills are unparalleled, but Sadak’s villainous appearance game needs some work. He looks as if Jared Harris was pulled from a nap in his trailer on set in Hawaii. I like Jared Harris, though. Sadak wears the patterned brown shirts popular amongst Indonesian men, his curly hair needs brushing, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t wearing flip flops.

He’s tougher than he looks, though. Until we see and hear from Sadak, we’ve spent much of the movie worrying about his chief mercenary, a Lebanese man named Kassar. Kassar is one terrible badass, but not one who visibly intimidates Sadak. Sadak’s lack of fear speaks volumes.

We know he’s a great hacker. In the opening attacks on the nuclear plant and the soy futures (not the soy futures!), all he has to do is press ENTER and…BOOM. That’s power, folks, and we better be scared. Let’s get our top criminals on the case!

Action/Effects (4/10)

First action scene occurs in Hong Kong (or is it Macau?), where the Kassar, the Lebanese mercenary, has wasted the two police officers tasked with observing him. But he’s just getting warmed up. Not nuclear-reaction-warmed up, but still hot.

A SWAT team enters and sweeps the flat. Each room is unguarded and unoccupied. Perhaps there was a vibrator in one bed; I’m not sure of that. I am sure that Kassar has escaped through the cavernous tunnel beneath his flat. It’s probably why he bought the place.

Hathaway, Dawai, a local policeman, and the US Marshall decide to sweep around to the exit of the tunnel once the SWAT goes inside. The tunnel is a spiral downward, and wide enough to walk five abreast. The SWAT shoot down, knowing they won’t hit anything, but will flush Kassar and his handful of cronies toward the unarmored guys encircling them. The echoes of gunfire in the tunnel boomed.

Kassar is not deterred. He and his goons shoot back, but they have a more sinister plan in mind. He pushes levers on two wall-mounted devices, which are probably mines, like he’s the best Goldeneye player around. The bad guys exit the tunnel and take cover amongst concrete pylons. They don’t yet know they are pincered.

The marshall takes aim and shoots one guy from 100 yards with his handgun. I don’t know guns but I bet that was an impressive feat he’ll tell the boys about when he gets home. Trang, the local guy, gets shot in the arm, and a terrific effect shows the blood spray.

Kassar aims his universal remote at the mines on the wall and turns them on. They were shrapnel mines, blowing thousands of metal shards through the area. Then a regular ole ‘splosive mine finishes off the black-clad SWAT.

The good guys duck behind the shipping containers, which are providing zero protection. The machine guns below are popping holes in them like rice paper. I would for sure face plant and crawl to a better spot.

Trang dies, but both sides move, and the good guys chase Kassar to the harbor to find he’s escaped on a gunboat.

Later, the same parties reunite in Hong Kong to briefly, but effectively, exchange shots. Kassar and his crew bazooka Chen Dawai in the white Mercedes, a car they’ve tracked for miles. They pepper machine gun ammo at Hathaway and Chen Lien for a few moments until FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and the marshall show up.

If you thought the marshall was a good shot, now watch. He draws his handgun and blasts a guy from a moving vehicle. Barrett stops the car, and he gets out. Marshall fire four times, and kills four guys. He takes a spray of bullets in his chest and shot to the knee that sends his leg flying. Barrett is also gunned down, but she is not as great a shot and kills no one.

As for effects, there were few, another reason to love Mann movies. The best effect was the ash covering everything in the nuclear plant control room. Smoke and dust billowed throughout the chamber, and I felt the stifling heat of the place. How many times did they have to shoot those scenes?

Summarizing, the movie needed more gun battles. Blackhat stretched past two hours but provided one extended shootout and one brief shootout. It wasn’t enough.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Brother and sister Chen Dawai and Lien flank Hathaway during his battles with Sadak and the US government. Dawai knew Hathaway at MIT, and is the mouthy one of the pair, which is saying a lot when Hathaway is the guy insulting federal lawyers offering furlough deals.

Dawai, member of China’s military, wants to travel to Washington to liaise with the FBI. He does. He wants Hathaway put on the team. He gets him. He wants Hathaway to run when China demands Dawai hand the hacker back to the FBI. Hathaway runs. Dawai is a guy who gets why he wants.

His sister is much the same. Lien arrives with Dawai as a package deal. Her skills as a coder are unknown, her skills as a badass are supreme. Lien might be called a fixer or cleaner, or whatever term mobsters use for people who do it all with grim facial expressions.

Lien needs to hack the Bank Sentra Agatis in Jakarta. She zips up the cleanest white dress you’ll see off a runway and walks outside their crappy hotel. She pours coffee on some documents and, in Indonesian fashion, throws away her cup–literally throws it away–and steps into a taxi.

At the bank she speaks English to the receptionist. If you still needed confirmation that English is the world language, watch this scene, in which a Chinese woman converses with an Indonesian man in a European language. The guy buys her alleged appointment and stained documents, and he injects the tainted USB into the hard drive.

Lien is an investigator. She speaks up often about what motivates certain criminals they surveil. FBI and US Marshalls are in the room, but she still comes up with the answer first.

She’s also a good coach. Early on, Hathaway struggles to keep his composure. He looks around like he’s being hunted. Lien tells him to stop thinking like he’s in prison. She tells him to look at where he is, and not where he was. I thought this was a come on, but I don’t think so. It’s not until much later that they do it.

Henchmen (5/8)

Kassar is a round-faced Lebanese freedom fighter who has spent too much time in the sun without wearing sunscreen, as evidenced by his red neck and face and pale torso in a surveillance photo.

His body might resemble a clown’s, but we should fear Kassar. Chinese police are watching him, and Kassar learns of this when he sits on his roof drinking tea. A twinkling reflects off his teapot, and, without turning around, he immediately knows the twinkling to be sunlight refracted off of the binoculars peering at him from behind.

Next we see of Kassar’s flat, he’s killed the two surveillance police and fled into the tunnel beneath his home and warned his boss to drain all their Swiss accounts. He walks away from the approaching SWAT team, devoid of fear and worry. It’s all business to him.

He’s not a great shot though. Perhaps it was his semi-automatic gun, but he couldn’t hit anyone to save his life, which he was actively trying to do. But he’s smart enough to booby trap his escape route and kill a dozen cops.

Stunts (3/6)

The only fight scene was very brief, but effective. Hathaway and Lien await a money drop in a Korean restaurant. Turns out the drop site was a plant, but a few toughs show up anyway to fight.

We just heard from Hathaway that he primarily did time for bar fighting, so what happens next becomes slightly more believable. Hathaway dispatches the first guy’s neck into the side of a table. He picks up another table to block attacks and smashes that into a baddy’s face. A chair is used in there somewhere against the requisite enraged chef.

Finally, Hathaway breaks a bottle being used by other diners, forgets to thank them, and slashes the final guy three times in the face. Quick and effective, like a real fight.

Climax (3/6)

Hathaway and Lien deduce Sadak’s plan to flood Malaysian tin mines to drive up the price. He will use the money from the soy scam to buy tin futures, so he’ll be worth nine or ten figures when it works out.

The pair steal Sadak’s dirty soy money. That provokes a reaction. Hathaway demands 20% of the tin scam but Sadak demands a meeting. Hathaway counted on it.

Hathaway wraps magazines around his torso, in the most low-grade Kevlar ever produced. He also sands down a screwdriver and rubber bands it to his forearm, practicing withdrawing it. That point jabbed his arm, and I think he certainly would have stabbed himself easily.

Only in the climactic scenes do we finally get a peek at Sadak, a silly looking man of unknown national origin. He and Hathaway speak on the phone after Hathaway steals his $74 million. They set a meet and greet, because Sadak meets his partners.

The first meeting is scheduled to occur in a high-rise in progress. But Lien is watching, and it’s hard to hide guys in a building that is only concrete floors and no walls. Hathaway demands a meeting in the center of town.

In the square is a festival of some import. Hathaway tracks Sadak and Kassar through the festival. No one seems worried about this. They continue their party. (And really, why shouldn’t they? They were performing a highly choreographed dance. A few guys are walking through, but so what? Would people stop the Rose Bowl Parade or Macy’s Thanksgiving because a few guys were walking around?)

Hathaway walks up right behind Kassar in a great shot in which both men are on opposite sides of the frame until the hero closes the gap. But Kassar let him, because he spins around pointing his gun.

Hathaway, earlier, told Lien that he only has to get close. And now he’s close. He fingers the screwdriver his coat sleeve conceals. Kassar pats him down and doesn’t notice the magazines. He also doesn’t notice Hathaway draw his screwdriver and plant it into his temple. The move is so fast the camera doesn’t notice it.

Sadak notices. He looks on, dead-eyed, as his lieutenant loses his life. The other goons walking through the square notice and respond by shooting. Now the performers are scared. They scatter. Hathaway picks up a pistol and shoots the Hawaiian-looking dude. Where did he learn to shoot like that?

Hathaway takes a bullet in the periodical and thus doesn’t notice Sadak draw a knife in slow motion. Sadak appears to stab Hathaway in the neck, but somehow the Hathaway’s scarf protects him.

Sadak didn’t know about the knife wedged between Hathaway’s belt and pants. The hero draws it, goes to one knee, and stabs Sadak eight times in the chest.

It’s a fast finale. Contrast that with 2015’s Spectre, in which the huge explosion in the desert is only one part of the ending. Blackhat’s showdown in the square lasts about ten minutes. If only the rest of the movie had been as tight.

After the climax, Lien and Hathaway await a flight in the airport. Hathaway wears another spotless white shirt, but instead of the t-shirt from prison it’s a button-up, because he can afford those things when he withdraws 5,000 euros at a time from his account worth 47,000,000 euros.

Wait, where did that money come from? The euro is worth about 90 cents to $1, so how did the $74,000,000 become so much less? I know he transferred the money to Swiss account, which probably doesn’t have ATM capabilities, so did Hathaway have separate eight-figure stash somewhere?

Jokes (1/4)

Mann’s visual style, adherent to reality and abhorrent to artificial lighting, cleaves to reality by eschewing jokes. Of course, humans need humor and use it in their daily lives, so sometimes a laugh or two sneaks into Mann’s movies.

Carol Barrett of the FBI is the movie’s funniest character. That her husband died in 9/11 might tip you off to the grim realities Mann likes to portray. She intimidates a commodities exchange official by saying that she’d like to call her buddy Laura Greer at the Commodities Exchange Commission and ask her, “Laura, how you doing?” Then she would be all like, “Investigate this glasses-wearin’ asshole.” She finally asks him if she’s being “tangible.” And she is. It’s funny.

The only time I laughed was surely an accident. Hathaway, in the Chinese restaurant, finds a computer and traces the security camera feed watching them to a server in Ukraine. He contacts the accounts owner and chats with him. He types, “i am onto you” when he meant to type “i am on to you.” MIT smart, can’t write correct words. (I’ll ignore the capitalization error, as that’s common enough in computer speak.)

Yes, I am aware of the typo I made earlier. By that I mean that I’m sure I made a typo earlier, but if I knew where it was I would fix it. Nevertheless, “onto” and “on to” mean different things, and someone working this movie should have known that.

Setting (2/4)

Rural Malaysia, Jakarta, Hong Kong’s markets–these are not locations one expects to find in espionage thrillers, but we find them here. Mann’s camera eschews the famous landmarks and vistas of one of the world’s most recognizable skylines, even when helicopters are flying above them, filming the cities.

Rural Malaysia and Jakarta really shine, in a dirty way. Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and one of the world’s largest urban areas, is hardly known for its cleanliness. Yellow, grey, and black are the colors du jour, and Hathaway and Lien wear clothes that pop on the backgrounds. Lien’s white dress she wears to the bank is as clean and white as white can be.

The pair get to Malaysia, somehow, and end up in a desolate valley that doubles as a tin mine. It’s just brown dirt ready to washed away, or, in the movie’s case, flooded. And Hong Kong in Blackhat is not the Hong Kong of countless other world-tripping espionage thrillers, but a back-alley town full of goons and market vendors, as it probably was a century ago, a strange setting for a techno-thirller.

Commentary (2/2)

The thin veil obscuring the commentary in Blackhat lasts for about three seconds. Anyone, anywhere, can hack anything, and real things can blow up because of it.

The opening attack on the nuclear plant underscores this idea. The camera imitates The Matrix by zooming into a digit on a screen in the control room. It zooms into a circuit and into a bit and finally back out to show one tiny light lit on a microcircuit. The movie treats one microchip like the it’s the Grand Canyon.

Sadak presses ENTER between munching Cheetos and the fan pump stops, which leads to a meltdown and explosion and people dying. The only way to stop a superhacker is to get in bed with another superhacker.

We live in a morally complicated world, the movie seems to say, and of course we do. China and the US engage in high level diplomacy, while Hathaway undermines both countries.

The movie doesn’t quite say that nation-states cannot stop the hacker threat. Chinese local police and American federal police are mostly effective at tracking and corralling Sadak and his underlings, but it’s conventional firepower that downs the cops. And when Hathaway kills Sadak, it’s with a knife and thanks to some magazines.

The movie tries to state that coding is an art. an FBI guy briefs the G-Persons after the initial dual cyberattacks. He and Dawai are of different minds about the code used to break into the nuclear plant, but they describe the code as “Lean, graceful; frenetic, overwritten.” People have long used these words to describe symphonies and novels, so why not code?

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Viola Davis and two Chinese actors play prominent roles in Blackhat. So much of the film is set in China that of course local actors are going to get play.


  • Blackhat mimics The Matrix, perhaps unintentionally. The whole zoom-way-into-screens bit is a Matrix trope that that movie series will always own. Subtly, Hathaway power sands his screwdriver while wearing black frames with black lenses, angled rather than rounded, similar to those Neo and Trinity helped make famous.
  • That same trip through the circuitry recalls the opening of David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet. In that film the camera tracks the beautiful, bucolic scenes of American suburbia. Inside the perfectly tended front lawn rest crunching beetles digesting a severed human ear. Nothing in Blackhat shocks like that ear, but the circuitry mask the openings for sinister people to do more damage than just cutting ears. After all, perhaps that ear just fell off for non-sinister reasons.
  • After the car bomb and shootout in Hong Kong, Hathaway grabs Lien’s arm to help her run to the subway. Normally I oppose men running while grasping women. Wouldn’t that slow down both parties? I ran cross country in high school, and no one ever literally held my hand to help me run faster, nor did I hold the hand of any other. But in this case, it was necessary. Lien had just watched her brother explode, so she was hardly in a state to do anything. Witness her tears in the subway.
  • (-3) That editing choice. Michael Mann interviewed with Collider and tells that the nuclear explosion original occurred much later in the film. Consider that when Hathaway and co. arrive at the plant, EMS is still treating victims. Surely at least a week has passed since the attack. The explosion was meant to heighten the stakes, and would have, but Mann probably moved it to the beginning because a market manipulation is hardly a terrifying start to a movie. I agree, but I think a fight or two could have covered that.
Summary (33/68): 49%

I would love to see Michael Mann get hold of a James Bond movie. Blackhat was everything that Quantum of Solace tried to be: commodities manipulation; tough guy working outside the law; and dirty, backwater locations.

Blackhat delivered in all the ways Michael Mann normally delivers: a great shootout, lots of blue light in night shots, an angled camera. We needed more of that and less of other things. Removing 15-30 minutes of footage could have elevated the film, without losing anything.