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 – Prisoners

The mark of Scandinavian crime drama seeps into every gloomy frame of this brutal and nihilistic English language debut from director Denis Villeneuve.

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners opens with carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) uttering the Lord’s Prayer before his son (Dylan Minnette) shoots his first deer. It’s a symbolic moment – a violent act performed in God’s name, one in which forgiveness is spoken of but ultimately ignored.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller is a deeply religious man whose New Testament nature gives way to Old Testament retribution when his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the daughter of his good friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) during a Thanksgiving dinner. Panic and grief give way to murderous vengeance for Keller when the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release their chief suspect, the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano).

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Loki implores Keller and his wife Grace, who’s become virtually catatonic through grief, to let him do his job, which involves methodically following whatever leads the case throws up. But blinded by rage and convinced that Alex knows where the girls are being held, an obsessive Keller takes it upon himself to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner to find the ‘truth’, sucking Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) into his increasingly disturbing descent.

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Cinematographer par excellence Roger Deakins infuses Prisoners with an almost suffocating dread – woods haven’t looked this spine-tingling since The Blair Witch Project. Not only does the film coldly nod in the direction of Scandi-drama, it also owes a lot to the slate-grey creepiness of David Fincher (in particular Seven and Zodiac), whose most recent film is, of course, his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Another Scandi-connection can be found in the atmospheric soundtrack provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

As well as the obvious religious overtones, it’s also easy to find a 9/11 allegory in Prisoners – a wounded America (religious everyman Keller) goes in search of revenge against its quarry (Alex) and is prepared to sacrifice its moral superiority to quench its thirst for vengeance.

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover's quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover’s quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Aaron Guzikowski’s script asks some troubling questions, most notably, to what lengths would you as a parent go when your worst nightmares are realised. Given the right material, Jackman can really act and shows he’s far more than the Wolverine with a raw and powerful performance as Keller. Jackman’s natural physicality lends a ticking time bomb nature to his character, someone who you believe will do anything to get his daughter back.

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Gyllenhaal, who played a political cartoonist dragged into tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, gives Loki (another Scandinavian connection) a stoical implacability that nicely mirrors Keller’s bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness. His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

The heavyweight supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Dano, normally a little too over-the-top, dials it right down as the tragic Alex; Howard and Davis are entirely believable as a couple who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the moral line and don’t know what to do; while Melissa Leo is reliably great as Alex’s impassive Aunt Holly.

It’s not until you watch the film that you realise just how rare a commodity it is in American studio cinema these days. Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia.