'Blackhat' is equal parts hacking and stabbing (review)

This uneven take on the cyberthriller genre dives deep into computing and international hacking, with Thor rocking a keyboard.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
3 min read

Chris Hemsworth in "Blackhat"
Chris Hemsworth -- just a normal hacker, doing normal hacker stuff. Legendary Pictures

"Blackhat" is an action movie that just happens to have a lot of computers in it.

Billed as a cyberthriller, it's equal parts guns, bladed weapons and people staring intently at computer screens. The film stars Chris "Thor" Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway, a hunky hacker who gets sprung out of a 15-year jail sentence with the promise of freedom if he can help track down a mysterious criminal mastermind who is hacking into nuclear power plants and global financial systems.

The idea of Hemsworth trading in his superhero muscles for brainier exploits only lasts for so long. He's been spending his downtime in jail bulking up, which explains why he looks nothing like the basement-bound, Doritos-munching hacker stereotype we so often see in popular culture. This is a good thing. Coupled with his network-engineer love interest, played by Wei Tang from "Lust, Caution," we get two hackers who break the mold.

Wei Tang's character can hold her own with a computer. Legendary Pictures

The film's release is unwittingly timely, considering all the attention surrounding the hack of Sony Pictures late last year and the threats against the comedy film "The Interview." Instead of North Korea getting the blame here, "Blackhat" focuses on the twisting journey that a team of Chinese and American government specialists take as they hack, run and fly, chasing the trail of the Big Bad, with Hathaway as their guiding light.

Director Michael Mann cut his Hollywood teeth writing for shows like "Starsky & Hutch" in the 1970s and then went on to produce "Miami Vice" starting in 1984. Big credits on his film directing resume include "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat," "Ali" and the 2006 big-screen version of "Miami Vice." This all sets Mann up as one of the more unusual action directors in Hollywood. He's known for riding a kinetic visual style on a wave of surging soundtrack music. These skills are on full display in "Blackhat."

Mann was an early adopter of digital filmmaking and he's not afraid to experiment. "Blackhat" features a restless camera and scenes that rotate between saturated colors and gauzy washed-out views, like he's cycling through his favorite Instagram filters. There's a sequence near the end when the digital filmmaking becomes strangely crisp, almost like it was filmed with someone's prosumer video camera and then downloaded from YouTube. Some viewers may find this foray through various visual styles off-putting. Mann fans will love it.

Hemsworth does a creditable enough job of pulling off his brawny-brainy character, though his Jason Bourne-level fighting skills are completely mysterious in origin. Perhaps he's just translating his presumably well-honed gaming skills into real life. The surrounding cast is suitably intense, with Viola Davis' weary FBI agent being a stand-out.

Mann has his hands full with building excitement during the hacking scenes. One solution he hits on is to dive deep into computers, pulling the viewer inside the hardware at a microscopic level. Visually, it's a heck of a lot of fun. Otherwise, we get the required close-ups of random-looking strings of numbers and letters on computer screens. And then Mann just seems to say, "Screw it. Now we're gonna blow stuff up and smash bottles into people's faces."

There are moments of startling violence in "Blackhat." I saw the film at a late-evening showing with only three other people in the audience, but there was at least one audible gasp from the woman sitting behind me. Mann isn't afraid to take away characters you like in horrible ways. There's a bit of an inner-George R.R. Martin to him.

"Blackhat" feels experimental, both through the mishmash of visuals and the pacing, which sometimes lingers too long on close-ups of faces or colorful backgrounds on location. The main baddie remains an enigma, with less character development than a Bond villain. If you like Mann's previous work, particularly the "Miami Vice" movie, you may well be intrigued by "Blackhat," but it isn't likely to be hailed as anything close to Mann's finest moment.