Thriller director explores world of cyber crime

Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway and Tang Wei as Chen Lien
Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway and Tang Wei as Chen Lien
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Ace thriller-maker, director Michael Mann has swapped heists for malware in his latest movie Blackhat. And it’s all real, he warns Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.

Michael Mann was in Washington. He was speaking with the spooks that exist in the shadows – the people who know what’s really going on in the world. Our world. And Mann was rattled by what he heard.

“It was kind of an eye-opening experience,” he says with a peculiar mix of stentorian warning and eagerness to share.

“The way we think our lives are and the way we live our lives is not really the way they are anymore.

“We’re porous and we’re vulnerable to intrusions from everywhere. We just don’t know [what’s going on].

“It’s like we’re in a house without doors and windows. It’s in a dangerous neighbourhood and we don’t know it.”

Mann is talking about cyber intrusions and cyber theft with an excitement that is normally the proviso of wide-eyed kids.

Yet clearly the 72-year-old director of The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and Collateral has experienced an epiphany. And it scared him.

This, then, is the world of Blackhat, in which Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth plays a convict released from prison to track down the cybervillain who has targeted a nuclear plant and the stock markets.

The film is a globe-trotting affair that takes Hemsworth and his cyber compadres on a journey across multiple countries as they pursue their faceless, nameless, invisible quarry.

For Mann the pell-mell nature of the story underlined the nature of the problem; hackers can operate from anywhere, strike anywhere, and affect anyone via a simple keystroke. Have laptop, will travel.

Adds Mann: “The extent of it was widespread. There was a ‘hot button’ situation in Washington a few years ago and we came back to Los Angeles and started discussing it and people didn’t know what we were talking about.

“That’s where it began and from there it went to, ‘Okay, who’s the guy? Who’s the main character?’ and to try and learn everything there is to know about ‘blackhat’ hackers.

“What motivates them? We got talking to two guys who were quite extraordinary. It gave you some sort of the sense of that.”

Mann exhibits a sense of evangelical zeal about his subject. He’s new to it. Moreover he’s had a wake-up call that he’s desperate to pass on to the rest of us. Blackhat is his method of communicating his message.

This is the auteur who invented the modern heist thriller.

The urban landscapes prowled by Robert De Niro in Heat and Tom Cruise in Collateral exist totally within the world created by Mann.

Yet they exude a sense of heightened reality. We believe that a gang of bank robbers will take on the LAPD on a packed city street.

And we are convinced 
of the existence of an existential killer like Vincent 
in Collateral, a man who 
will casually but clinically dispose of anyone and everyone on his hit list with cool precision.

They live in Mann’s world and we shudder under the realisation that they may exist in ours, too.

Reality bites.

Blackhat, says Mann, is as real as it gets. The scenarios he depicts in the movie are immediate. Paranoia has become physical.

“What motivates me to do this? First of all it takes place in our world as it is right now, right at the cutting edge of this moment. Everything is interconnected with everything else.

“That’s the world we live in right now. It’s never going to go back to the way it used to be.

“You have a convicted blackhat hacker who’s got a conditional release from federal prison to pursue a cyber criminal adversary, a guy who’s high speed, dangerous, world class. He’s a ghost. He’s out there somewhere.

“They don’t know who he is, where he is, why he’s doing what he’s doing.

“But the thrill in making it was an opportunity to pull the mechanics of the storytelling out of the very current world we are in right now.

“I find that very exciting. It’s taken from that same world, the immediate right now. It becomes kind of a detective story.”

Mann gracefully accepts a compliment about his invention of the modern thriller genre but bats it back. Blackhat allowed him to move his filmmaking on, jumping from the 20th to the 21st century.

The old ways have been left behind.

His hero, Hathaway, played by Hemsworth, personifies the quantum leap made by Mann and the film, as the director explains.

“Twenty years ago they’d try to find out a location by interrogating an informant. Today instead of that they con a guy in the NSA to download a password, download some software, restore some code and what does he get? He gets a location.

“He still doesn’t know who the guy is, where he is, or what he’s doing but they know this guy’s command control server is in Jakarta, Indonesia. That’s a clue. So the story is telling itself.”

Mann’s digital rebirth – he strives to make computerspeak sexy and shot the movie entirely on digital – did not extend to an overuse of CGI. Instead he dragged his cast across 70 separate locations from Chicago to Kowloon.

“Film is an interweaving of text, music, visuals, the story, dialogue, people. You want places to feel evocative of what the scene’s about before it begins,” he asserts.

“The ultimate thing is a location which makes the scene come to life. Then it comes alive for all of us. It’s really there. It’s not digitally put in. We’re not looking at a green screen. It’s the real thing.

“The actors took all of that in and really felt they were there. What’s the most alien landscape these underdogs could be in? That became Chicago.”

• Blackhat (15) opens in cinemas today.