Cyberpunks, propeller heads and other computer freaks likely will want to interface with “Hackers,” a brisk little thriller about high-tech pranksters who inadvertently involve themselves in a complex embezzling plot. But mainstream audiences — especially diehard computer-phobes — won’t be easily attracted. Expect mild B.O. numbers and fair-to-middling vid rentals.
Newcomer Rafael Moreu’s script is a modestly clever reworking of a formulaic concept, pitting members of a hip teen subculture against corrupt and/or oppressive adults. In this case, the teens are determinedly colorful hackers, computer whiz-kids who get their kicks by making unauthorized entries into corporate and governmental computer systems.
Pic depicts the young hackers as relatively benign nuisances who aren’t nearly as dangerous as federal agents would have the public believe. The real villain of the piece is the Plague (Fisher Stevens), a computer security agent who is double-crossing his employer, a multinational corporation, by siphoning off money to a Swiss bank account.
When one of the good hackers accidentally obtains evidence of the Plague’s scheme while surfing through the corporation’s computer system, the bad hacker tries to frame the good hackers by making them appear to be ransom-demanding terrorists.
First among equals in the good hacker camp: Dade (Jonny Lee Miller), a teenage master hacker who gained national notoriety seven years earlier by single-handedly crashing 1,507 Wall Street computers. Newly transferred to a Manhattan high school, he’s initially intent on keeping a low profile. But he quickly falls in with a group of like-minded fellow students with such colorful computer aliases as Phantom Phreak (Renoly Santiago), Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard) and Lord Nikon (Laurence Mason). Joey, a youngerand far less experienced hacker, is the one who manages the high-tech break-in that attracts the Plague’s attention.
Dade develops a crush on Kate (Angelina Jolie), who is unresponsive at first. But a romance slowly blossoms as they and the other young hackers join forces with a cybernet underground to upset the Plague’s master plan.
“Hackers” operates under the assumption that, for a dedicated hacker, breaking into any computer system is only slightly more difficult than installing Windows 95. Director Iain Softley (“Backbeat”) wisely keeps pic moving faster than the speed of skepticism, so there is little time for the audience to seriously question the credibility of the frantic goings-on.
There is a great deal more style than substance here. The special effects experts and the other members of the technical crew do their considerable best to give their various hacking sequences the look of warp-speed sci-fi fantasy.
“Hackers” features a fine mix of attractive young newcomers and familiar character actors. Miller and Jolie are appropriately engaging as the romantic leads, though they are frequently upstaged by standouts Santiago and Lillard. Stevens is aptly flamboyant as the egomaniacal Plague.
Production values, including Andrzej Sekula’s ace cinematography, are slick.
“Hackers” is the first pic in recent memory that has a teen hero (Miller) comfort his mother by telling her he’s still a virgin. Ironically, mom is played by Alberta Watson, late of “Spanking the Monkey,” in which she played a mother who took a less wholesome interest in her son’s sexuality.