We first encounter Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) in a maximum-security prison cell, where the erstwhile MIT student and anarchic brogrammer makes the most of his time, as he later explains, by exercising his body (push-ups) and his mind (his bookshelf is a virtual roll call of postwar French philosophy, name-checking Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, etc.). The pointed mise-en-scène here functions almost like an overture, articulating the themes that will be developed through the film: the ways in which technology disrupts the dynamics of power, affording institutions terrifyingly effective tools of social control, while also facilitating novel means of mischief-making for relatively loveable rogues like Hathaway, as well as decidedly more malicious sorts.
"Blackhat" tells the story of the search for the hackers responsible for an attack on a Chinese nuclear power plant that resulted in a reactor explosion, fears of a possible meltdown, and the subsequent manipulation of the Chicago soy futures exchange that netted the perpetrators some $70 million. When Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a Chinese security official investigating the reactor explosion, recognizes the bit of code used to create a vulnerability in the computer networks at the power plant and the commodities exchange as having been written by Hathaway—his former MIT roommate—he embarks on plan to win a furlough for his imprisoned friend so that he can assist in the hunt for the Blackhat hackers. Hathaway and Chen are joined by the latter's sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), herself a brilliant beautiful software engineer (who also becomes the subject, with Hathaway, of the film's obligatory Mann-ian impossible love affair), and FBI agent Carrol Barret, a role for which Viola Davis has already earned just praise.
The plot of "Blackhat" is turgid and stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but this is of lesser importance for a director like Mann, who tends to privilege images, incident, and emotion over conventional narrative structure. The movie is almost a pastiche of some of Mann's most successful films (including "Public Enemies," "Miami Vice," "Heat," and especially "Thief") and Hemsworth's Hathaway, with his quiet, brooding intensity and baleful self-abnegation, emerges from a direct genealogical line of Mann's Byronic antiheroes. Meanwhile, Stuart Dryburgh's digital cinematography combines frenetic hand-held action sequences with operatic aerial cityscapes—Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta—for a visual style that is paradoxically claustrophobic and expansive.
Insofar as there is a significant flaw with "Blackhat," it stems directly from the movie's subject matter. Cybercrime, by its very nature, is rooted in anonymity and the first two-thirds of the movie is concerned with Hathaway and company's search for the perpetrator behind the China and Chicago attacks. As much as anything else, the contours of Mann's antiheroes are articulated most clearly through their agonistic relationships with their generally equally Byronic foes (think Al Pacino's Lt. Vincent Hanna and Robert Deniro's Neil McCauley from "Heat"). Here too is the source of the dramatic tension that builds throughout these films, imbuing their ultimate confrontations with tremendous cathartic power. But we don't even encounter the unnamed master villain, played by a coolly menacing, if decidedly underused Yorick van Wageningen, until the third act. Thus as he and Hathaway meet in the film's gorgeously choreographed finale, there is little that is identifiably human underpinning their confrontation.
But this is the world we are living in now, with nameless, faceless techno bandits exploiting security lapses at Hollywood studios, major retailers, and even the nuclear facilities of so-called rogue states, not to mention the constant surveillance and everyday espionage that has become the reality of the modern national-security state. The 21st-century panopticon may look more like a television display at Best Buy than anything Jeremy Bentham envisioned, but as "Blackhat" hacker Nick Harthaway understands, Foucault was definitely on to something.