By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Michael Mann's cyber-terror thriller "Blackhat" punches, kicks, slashes and guns down the notion of the solitary keyboard-pecking hacker with the muscular Chris Hemsworth as adroit in a street fight as he is combing through government servers.
The hunky Hemsworth - People magazine's reigning "Sexiest Man Alive" - who fends off an international paramilitary hacking gang bent on manipulating markets for profit helps drive away misconceptions about the modern computer whiz, Mann Said.
"They are not middle-class white kids working in their parents' basement," the filmmaker said, pointing to well-known hackers like the 7-foot (2.13 meters) weightlifting Stephen Watt and hard-partying Albert Gonzalez. "That's nonsense."
Hemsworth, 31, plays Nicholas Hathaway, an MIT-educated hacker from a working-class family who the U.S. government lifts out of prison to work with the Chinese to help crack a cyberattack that causes a near meltdown at a Hong Kong nuclear reactor.
"Blackhat" - the term for a malicious hacker - opens in U.S. theaters on Friday and stars Chinese actress Tang Wei as a Chinese government computer scientist and Hathaway's love interest, as well as Viola Davis as an FBI agent who is charged with monitoring his release.
The attack on the nuclear reactor is just the first domino to fall in a scheme to manipulate commodity prices such as soy and tin that Hathaway uncovers and leads him on a manhunt through Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Throughout the film, often shot with the bouncy effect of a handheld camera during high action, Hathaway and his Chinese partners are frustrated by territorial squabbles between the FBI and National Security Agency, and the government's anxiety at partnering with China.
Mann, the director of 1995's "Heat" and 2004's "Collateral" and considered a master at the Hollywood thriller, said the inherent drama of cyber crime and virtual vulnerability made it an easy story to pursue.
"The notion that you can be private and control what goes in and out of your life does not apply anymore," he said. "That's the new human condition."
It is also the new condition in Hollywood following the crippling cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment the U.S. government has blamed on North Korea.
Despite its ripped-from-the-headlines feel, the $70 million film distributed by Universal Pictures is only expected to gross $29 million overall at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Boxoffice.com.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Andrew Hay)