Zack Parker (Proxy) Talks Michael Mann’s blackhat

A familiar narrative setup, plot holes aplenty, an unconvincing hero, and a romance that doesn't add up. But who are we to criticize Michael Mann?

Who am I to criticize Michael Mann? He has been nominated for Academy Awards and Golden Globes, has played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and, more importantly, has made some films that I really respect and admire: Manhunter, Collateral and, of course, Heat. I have made four features with combined budgets of barely $500K, and been nominated for none of the aforementioned awards. Who am I to say he has made a bad film? This is why I’m struggling to write this piece, why I really kind of dreaded it, because I seriously disliked this movie.

The plot is pretty simple and one we’ve seen before, most notably in The Rock. A series of cyber-terrorist attacks is committed (one at a nuclear power plant in China, nearly sending it into meltdown, the other on the stock market, to boost the price of soy), and every legitimate, government-employed specialist is baffled. Therefore we must call in the bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold hacker (Chris Hemsworth), who also happens to be in prison, to consult on the case. I’m not sure why it is that, every time that the FBI (or some equivalent organization) needs an outside expert, they are always imprisoned. But I digress.

We then begin to jump around, as these capers tend to do, from one exotic locale to the next — China to L.A., back to China, then Malaysia and finally Indonesia — as Hemsworth stays two steps ahead of everyone else, not only as the world’s greatest hacker, but apparently as its greatest detective as well.

I have to say I just don’t see the point of traveling to all these different locations. I suppose on paper it makes the film look bigger, but if you’re just going to use chaotic, shallow focal-length, handheld medium shots when you get there, is it really making a difference? I can only assume this was motivated on some level by where the film’s funding came from.

I’ll spare you the complaints about how we’re supposed to swallow the idea of a ripped-up, 6’2” Hemsworth (Thor, for Chrissake) as a… hacker. I get it, you have to sell a movie, and having the one of the leads from one of the biggest cinema franchises in the world doesn’t hurt. I’ll also try not to harp on the logical pitfall of all of these cyber thrillers: that when you put the right person behind a keyboard they can accomplish anything — steal any identity, break into any secure server in existence, reverse the orbit of the Earth around the Sun — all in a matter of seconds. No, my biggest overall gripe with blackhat was the “romantic relationship” between Hemsworth and Wei Tang.

Tang plays Chen Lien, another beautiful hacker and the sister of Chen Dawai (Leehorn Wang), the Chinese agent who convinces the FBI to release Hemsworth and also happens to be his former roommate at MIT. The relationship between Tang and Hemsworth is one of the most forced, contrived and awkward that I’ve ever witnessed on screen. Completely devoid of any chemistry, these two have known each other literally less than 24 hours, have barely spoken a word to one another, but just happen to find themselves occupying the same space alone for a moment and are instantly willing to give up everything in their lives to be together. Well, she is, at least, because she’s the woman, and her life doesn’t really matter.

It’s like that age-old notion of getting animals to mate in a zoo. Just put one of each gender in a cage and eventually they’ll fuck. Except, instead of pandas, they are gorgeous hackers. Instead of a cage, it’s an abandoned floor of a skyscraper in Hong Kong, and instead of fucking, they are rolling around on a bed in blue light (and where did that bed come from?).

Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to mention my confusion about how Hemsworth is not only granted furlough from prison, but somehow seems to be deputized as an international special agent as well. He’s supposed to be a consultant on codes — so why is he involved in raids of potential suspect hideouts, wearing a bulletproof vest, brandishing a weapon, and even running ahead of the fucking SWAT team during said raids? These kinds of ludicrous moments that just made it increasingly difficult for me to take this film seriously.

And that’s unfortunate. Mann has shown us many times that he is a gifted filmmaker, and there are really too few of those out there. Furthermore, there’s no disputing the relevance of the overall subject matter of blackhat, especially given the recent, now infamous hack at Sony. What’s regrettable is that this fascinating and timely concern comes wrapped in a narrative that is, at the end of the day, rather boring and far-fetched.

But then again, maybe I’m wrong. Who am I to criticize Michael Mann?

Zack Parker is a Midwest-based independent filmmaker. His features include the horror/thrillers Inexchange, Quench and Scalene. Proxy, his latest, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by IFC Midnight August 12th.