Allegations of industrial cyber-espionage and mass electronic snooping have been flying hot and heavy between Washington and Beijing recently, but director Michael Mann’s upcoming cyber-thriller imagines an American and a Chinese army officer — two former MIT roommates — teaming up to stop a ruthless, profit-driven hacking network.
In the yet-to-be-titled film, slated for release in January by Universal, "Thor" star Chris Hemsworth plays a black-hat hacker serving federal time who gets furloughed to help a liaison group hunt down a nefarious network operating from somewhere unknown, Mann revealed in an interview this week. Hemsworth's character, Nicholas Hathaway, is promised that if the mission succeeds, his sentence will be commuted.
Leehom Wang, an American who’s built a massive career as a pop singer in China, portrays Chen Dawai, a Chinese citizen who attended the Bronx High School of Science and then went on to MIT, where he roomed with Hathaway. Despite different backgrounds — Hathaway is the son of a steelworker, Chen comes from a more elite family — the two men are “very tight,” the director said.
Mann said that in the wake of 2010 Stuxnet computer worm, which attacked Iran's nuclear program, he became fascinated with what was happening in the world of cyber-crime and cyber-espionage.
"I started researching this about two years ago in Washington with people who were heavily involved in countering cyber intrusions, from former members of the CIA and FBI to people in the private sector," Mann said. "Everything that's become front page [news] six or seven months ago was mostly apparent two years ago if you dug into the subject."
The movie is among a slew of recent Hollywood productions including "Transformers: Age of Extinction" with strong Chinese elements.
Shooting last year took Mann's cast and crew to 74 locations in four countries in 66 days as the story follows the cast from L.A. to Hong Kong; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Perak, Malaysia, as they chase their quarry.
The network's motive is money, Mann said. "But in the real world, their indifference to the impact on people's lives is sociopathic," added the director, a four-time Oscar nominee known for movies including "Heat," "Public Enemies" and "The Insider."
Wang’s character is a captain in the People’s Liberation Army, and Mann said he found the singer — who has acted in Mandarin-language films, including Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” — had qualities that resonated in a very strong way with Chen.
"Particularly, his inner authority," said Mann. "He's a captain in the PLA. There's an expectation with him that if he expresses what he needs, it's going to be met."
When the audience first meets Chen, Mann said, he's in uniform and speaking Mandarin. "Then, surprisingly he breaks into American unaccented English," said the director.
"It misdirects you into seeing him as bicultural, but at the core he carries a legacy of military authority," Mann said.
Asked if it was a challenge for Wang to hold the screen against the man who portrayed a hammer-wielding Norse god, Mann said it wasn't an issue.
"Leehom, as a musician and a multifaceted artist, is extremely focused and has a great work ethic," Mann said. "In other words, he has what every director wishes for, an appropriate, well-balanced, strong artistic ego."
The director said he didn't realize just what a star Wang was in Asia until the production was filming in Hong Kong and crowds of female fans would approach the location. He also had to make sure his camera avoided a nearby billboard featuring Wang, who has plenty of endorsement deals.
Mann said Hong Kong was an amazing yet challenging place to shoot. He joked that he didn't have any problems a la "Transformers" director Michael Bay, who notoriously had an air conditioner thrown at him by a local who was unhappy with the production's presence in his neighborhood.
But he said he sympathized with Bay's situation. Because of the city's density, Mann said, "it's difficult to tie up three lanes of a major artery because you want to shoot. We're kind of used to doing that. So there are difficulties but they were worth it because Hong Kong's visual presentation, its colors, sculptural spaces and textures are so stunning."