It lures us in with the promise of up-to-the-minute villainy, but the satisfactions of "Blackhat" are surprisingly old school.
Directed by the veteran Michael Mann, "Blackhat's" story of computer attacks wreaking all kinds of havoc with established institutions is timely enough to echo the cyber-intrusions that recently did so much damage at Sony.
But though Morgan Davis Foehl's script happily employs modern terminology like malware, proxy servers and RATs (Remote Access Tools for the uninitiated), at its heart this is a traditional crime story, with the good guys straining every sinew to keep evildoers from their moment of triumph.
Fortunately for moviegoers seeking diversion, Mann (a key player in TV's "Miami Vice" with a feature directing career going back to 1981's exemplary "Thief") is especially good at telling this kind of tale. He would have to be to deal with a "Blackhat" weakness, which is Chris Hemsworth in the starring role.
Before we get to Hemsworth's character, a convicted hacker serving hard time named Nicholas Hathaway, we get to see, in a way that takes full advantage of Mann's gifts as a visual stylist, "Blackhat's" villain doing his worst.
This shadowy figure, glimpsed briefly, taps furiously at his keyboard ("Press enter and let slip the dogs of war" could have been the film's tagline) and, courtesy of a marvelous visualization, we get to go deep inside a computing system as a virus does its worst.
That worst, in this particular case, is destroying the cooling system at a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong, leading to eight dead, 27 wounded and a bad international case of jitters.
Then a few days later, a second shoe drops. To much flashing of lights and electronic numbers, a major American trade exchange is hacked, with resulting wild spikes in the price of soy futures that could have made someone in the know a whole lot of money.
Similarities in both attacks mandate that the United States and China cooperate in tracking down the perpetrator, but mutual mistrust means, as FBI special agent Carol Barrett (the always reliable Viola Davis) knows, this isn't going to be an easy collaboration.
China, for its part, sends over People's Liberation Army Capt. Chen Dawai (Chinese heartthrob Wang Leehom), a rising star in Chinese cybersecurity whose impeccable English comes courtesy of time spent at MIT. He brings along his computer whiz sister Chen Lien ("Lust, Caution's" Tang Wei), largely because an attractive computer whiz is always welcome in a movie like this.
When Capt. Chen gets to Washington, his first request stuns the security bureaucrats. He wants to work with Hathaway, his old MIT roommate, now a notorious hacker whom we've already seen making things difficult for officials at the prison where he's four years into a 15-year sentence.
In theory, selecting the brawny Hemsworth, best known for his portrayal of Thor in a long string of Marvel movies, as someone who can hurt you with his keyboard as well as his knuckles is an intriguing piece of counterintuitive casting. In practice, however, it doesn't work as planned.
While Hemsworth was excellent in the non-Thor role of racing driver James Hunt in "Rush," making Hawthorne convincing eludes him. Oddly reminiscent of Marlon Brando's anti-social glowering in "The Wild One," the sullen cast he gives to the role testifies to his lack of comfort as much as anything else.
Sullen or not, it's no surprise that Hawthorne gets a conditional get-out-of-jail card to join his old roomie in pursuing the bad guys. And though it seems to take the participants by surprise, audiences will not be shocked to discover a growing romantic attraction between Hawthorne and the captain's sister, culminating in an affair whose chasteness won't hurt its reception in the Asian marketplace.
Given the standard nature of sections of "Blackhat's" plot, Mann's skill as a director is essential in holding our attention as the Chinese-American team follows multiple lines of electronic breadcrumbs in pursuit of the malicious hacker.
Always a crisp, propulsive storyteller with a gift for striking images, Mann and his cast and crew traveled 10,000 miles to 74 locations in places like Hong Kong, a remote part of Malaysia and bustling Jakarta, Indonesia, to bring "Blackhat" to life. Technology may have changed, cyber-crime may be all the rage, but the narrative song remains the same in films like this, and it's a tune this director knows by heart.
MPAA rating: R for violence and some language
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Playing: In general release