Review – Blackhat

The heat is strangely missing from Michael Mann’s fumbled first foray into the mysterious playground of computer hackers.

There is much to like about Blackhat, but too many mishandled moments means you'll be reaching for the proverbial control-alt-delete buttons come the end

There is much to like about Blackhat, but too many mishandled moments means you’ll be reaching for the proverbial control-alt-delete buttons come the end

On first glance, it’s obvious what drew Mann to such material; hacking demands a methodology and an obsessiveness as life-consuming as the cops and criminals who do battle on the mean streets of the writer-director’s numerous crime movies.

The film’s release just weeks after the hack on Sony Pictures and on the back of a growing list of other big name incidents also lends the film an up-to-the-minute relevance.

It’s odd, therefore, that Blackhat never quite catches fire in the same way as his other crime thrillers, in particular Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004).

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) goes on the run with Lien (Tang Wei) in Blackhat

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) goes on the run with Lien (Tang Wei) in Blackhat

It doesn’t help that the film starts badly with an extended visually clichéd sequence of data infecting a Chinese nuclear power plant’s systems. The intention is clear – something so small can cause something so big – but it feels old hat and the film is further blighted by indulging in other computer movies chestnuts, most notably by having screens bleep when information is typed in (what computers actually make those sounds outside of the movies?!).

Baffled by who is responsible for the power plant incident and a subsequent hack on a US trade exchange, Chinese official Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) convinces FBI Agent Carol Barrett (a typically solid Viola Davis) to temporarily release convicted coder Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, doing his best) from prison to help with the investigation. As they edge ever nearer to the truth of what is actually going on, the threat grows, as does the attraction between Hathaway and Dawai’s sister Lien (Tang Wei).

Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is tasked with finding the hacker in Blackhat

Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is tasked with finding the hacker in Blackhat

Blackhat grinds to a halt for the techie bits, which usually involve one or more of the cast watching the beautifully coiffured Hemsworth bash away at the keys of a computer keyboard with a stern look on his face (the fact he’s a butch alpha male is explained in a throwaway moment early on when he starts doing press-ups against the wall of his cell).

Likewise, the chemistry between Hemsworth and Tang is pretty weak and the romance between the characters is as unnecessary as that between Colin Farrell and Gong Li in the otherwise underrated Miami Vice (2006).

Viola Davis plays FBI Agent Carol Barrett in Blackhat

Viola Davis plays FBI Agent Carol Barrett in Blackhat

However, the film comes alive when it takes to the streets, dispenses with much of the dialogue and has its camera tracking the characters like a bird of prey as they go to work. An early fight in a restaurant bodes well and the promise is delivered during two fantastic gun battles; one set in a shipping yard, with the noise of bullets thudding into the containers a particular highlight, and another, bloodier exchange on the streets of Jakarta.

This latter gunfight especially reminds you of just how much of a natural Mann is when it comes to knowing where to place the (now de rigueur DV) camera while letting the raw punch of gunfire do much of the work.

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) has a view to a kill in Blackhat

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) has a view to a kill in Blackhat

The director’s neo noir style comes to the fore during the numerous night scenes in Hong Kong, which allow the director to cross between beautifully lit narrow lanes and expansive streets bathed in colour and often flanked by banner advertisements of faces or eyes that underscore the film’s tone of being watched by forces of which we have little understanding.

In addition, the momentary flash of a binocular lens on a coffee pot in one scene also underscores the difference between the ultra-professionalism of Mann’s main characters and everyone else (while also bringing to mind the moment in Heat when a cop accidentally bumps against the side of a van during a surveillance operation).

There is much to like about Blackhat, but too many mishandled moments means you’ll be reaching for the proverbial control-alt-delete buttons come the end.

Review – Rush

More than three decades after his feature debut Grand Theft Auto, Ron Howard once more feels the need for speed in this loud and proud biopic centred around one of motor sport’s greatest rivalries.

Rush Poster

Although too conventional for a story such as this, Ron Howard’s Rush nevertheless fires on enough cylinders to make it a worthy study of what drove two men to risk it all to win

Perhaps more than any other sport, Formula One deeply divides opinion between those who would rather sit in a traffic jam to those who live for race day.

A typically laid-back James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) in Rush

A typically laid-back James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) in Rush

Previously, motor sport movies such as Grand Prix and Le Mans generally tailored themselves towards the petrol head. That was until the 2010 British documentary Senna, a stunning and deeply moving film about the life and tragic death of Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna. Crucially, Senna managed to make its subject accessible to the uninitiated and avoid dumbing itself down to the serious fans at the same time.

It’s a feat Howard just about carries off in Rush which, like Senna, chronicles an intense duel between two drivers – Britain’s James Hunt and Austria’s Niki Lauda.

Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda in Rush

Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda in Rush

The film charts their professional rivalry from their days as young Formula Three drivers in 1970 to the topsy-turvy 1976 F1 season, during which Hunt suffered multiple setbacks and Lauda was involved in a horrifying crash that resulted in severe burns, before it  all came down to the final race in Japan.

It-girl Suzy Miller turns James Hunt's head in Rush

It-girl Suzy Miller turns James Hunt’s head in Rush

Howard has a capacity to imbue his more prestigious projects (Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon) with an admirable authenticity and he tackles Rush with a similar mindset. The saturated colours and grainy lens lend the film a 1970s air that’s complemented by a close attention to detail in the costume and production design.

Australian actor Chris Hemsworth’s acting talents are still relatively unknown beyond his performances as Thor in the Marvel film series and he has a ball as Hunt, the larger-than-life playboy who’s as gifted behind the wheel as he is between the sheets (he’s rumoured to have slept with more than 5,000 women). Hunt isn’t a one-dimensional cartoon, though, and Hemsworth evokes the highs and lows that came with his excessive lifestyle, while also showing why he chose to risk life and limb each and every race.

Feeling the need for speed in Rush

Feeling the need for speed in Rush

Normally it’s the Brits who are the reserved ones, but here it’s Daniel Brühl’s Lauda, who’s all about maximising performance, methodical preparation and driving within acceptable levels of risk. Brühl does a smart job of garnering the audience’s empathy for a character who, on paper, is a cool, self-controlled jerk with a singular purpose to win. In one effectively staged scene, a honeymooning Lauda stares worriedly out the window, realising that with new wife Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) he now has something to lose; while in the corner of the shot a fire burns, cleverly foreshadowing the appalling accident that is to come.

The intense rivalry between Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Junt (Chris Hemsworth) in Rush

The intense rivalry between Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Junt (Chris Hemsworth) in Rush

Howard reteams with writer Peter Morgan following Frost/Nixon, another 70s drama about high stakes and intense rivalry. Although not as powerful a script, Morgan’s spiky dialogue keeps things racing along at a fast enough speed in spite of the incessant exposition-heavy commentary that threatens to overtake each and every race.

The races themselves are when the film high truly hits top gear. Howard keeps the camera tight on Hunt or Lauda or low to the track (including some engine-specific digital effects work) to give a convincing impression of the terrifying speeds these horse-powered coffins were capable of, and almost overwhelms the senses with a ear-bleeding wall of sound.

This is Hemsworth’s and Lauda’s show, but Olivia Wilde impresses as it-girl Suzy Miller, who turns Hunt’s head, while Christian McKay is wonderfully fruity as Alexander Hesketh, the colourful owner of Hunt’s first racing team.

Although too conventional for a story such as this, Rush nevertheless fires on enough cylinders to make it a worthy study of what drove two men to risk it all to win.