Mitnick movie on DVD

Pretty bad hacker flick -- you'll love it

The controversial movie version of the electronic manhunt that snared hacker legend Kevin Mitnick is now available on DVD through Amazon.fr and other French retail sites. Now, for 241,52 Francs, or about $27 US, those capable of cracking the disk's region encoding can confirm for themselves that Hollywood did the right thing by exiling Takedown from the English-speaking world.

The ninety-minute film tells the story of how computer researcher Tsutomu Shimomura tracked Mitnick to his Raleigh, North Carolina hideout in February, 1995. It's based on the book Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw -- By The Man Who Did It, penned by Shimomura and New York Times reporter John Markoff, and giddily optioned by Disney's Miramax amid the storm of publicity following the fugitive hacker's arrest.

It stars Skeet Ulrich as Mitnick and Russell Wong as Shimomura, and features appearances by Tom Berringer and rapper Master P. The DVD offers letterbox format, Dolby stereo and a lengthy interview with the real Mitnick. Sadly, it does not come with a "Making Of" documentary, which might have been the best part.

The real Takedown story began in 1998. While the real-life Mitnick sat in jail awaiting trial, his supporters obtained an advance copy of the Takedown screenplay, and were disheartened to find Mitnick portrayed as violent and potentially homicidal.

Protesters, led by Eric Corley, editor of 2600 The Hacker Quarterly, converged on Miramax's New York City offices, then went on a cross-country journey from New York to California, with a stopover at the Takedown location shoot in Raleigh. They passed out "Free Kevin" bumper stickers and "Stop Miramax" flyers along the way.

While on the road, Corley shot a movie of his own -- a documentary in the style of Michael Moore's Roger and Me called "Freedom Downtime," which debuted at last year's H2K hacker convention in New York.

Whether in response to the protests, or the threat of legal action by Mitnick, later versions of the Takedown screenplay portrayed the hacker as far less evil. But even that didn't lift the project's curse. After shooting wrapped in December, 1998, poor test screenings were rumored to have sent cast and crew back to North Carolina for a partial re-shoot. In the end, at least four writers had their hands on the script, and the finished product was still deemed too dreadful to justify the cost of a US release. It found its way to French theatres last March as Cybertraque.

The newly-released Cybertraque DVD features two soundtracks: one dubbed in French, and one in English with French subtitles. North American movie fans beware: the DVD is coded for region two, which means it won't work in players sold outside of Japan, Europe, South Africa, and the Middle East.

If you're an American determined to see the film, check your DVD player's manual: some players allow you to switch regions a limited number of times -- typically five. Additionally, hackers have been able to circumvent region encoding on some DVD computer drives.

Strict Anglophones can order the movie from Amazon.fr with a little translation help from Babelfish.

Bring out the Doomsday Code

Takedown opens in a Los Angeles strip club, where Mitnick and his comic sidekick Alex (the movie's version of real-life Mitnick pal Lew DePayne) have been summoned to a clandestine meeting with a hacker called "Icebreaker," a frenetic rocker who acts like he's on crystal meth and says things like "I am the shit." Surrounded by swirling cigarette smoke and framed by topless dancers, Icebreaker tries vainly to convince the pair that he's a world class hacker who would be a benefit to any cyber gang.

Icebreaker, it turns out, is actually a bumbling FBI informant gunning for Mitnick. But instead of getting dirt on the hacker, he inadvertently sets Mitnick on the trail of the local telephone company's computer-controlled wiretapping system. The scenes that follow show Mitnick, well played by Scream star Ulrich, conning phone company workers over his cell phone while cruising around Los Angeles in a convertible.

Mitnick uses the hacked system to turn the tables on Icebreaker, then, fearing FBI reprisal, goes into hiding and violates his probation.

This fifteen-minute set-up is fast paced, mildly entertaining and more-or-less faithful to reality. It's worth noting that the sequence is nowhere to be found in Shimomura and Markoff's book, but is present in a competing book, The Fugitive Game - Online With Kevin Mitnick, by writer Jonathan Littman. Littman filed suit against Miramax last March for alleged copyright infringement over the sequence, and the case is now pending in the courts.

With Mitnick on the run, we meet Tsutomu Shimomura, the World's Greatest Computer Security Expert and a researcher at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Russell Wong's Shimomura is meant to be a more well-rounded computer geek, but he comes off as a bit weird: he speaks aloud, softly and lovingly, to his computer, but is a bit rude to the humans in his life. Naturally he takes it hard when Mitnick, searching for secret cell phone eavesdropping codes, roots his Unix box and steals all his files.

The hack (performed in real life by an unindicted Mitnick co-conspirator) sends Shimomura into a tizzy, and the plot into fantasy land. Hollywood's Shimomura, it turns out, has created a terrifying computer program that could wreak havoc around the world, and now Mitnick's got it. As Shimomura painfully confesses to his girlfriend, "Literally, with a matter of a few keystrokes you could bring a city, maybe even a country, to its knees. You could overload phone lines and e-mail systems, disrupt air traffic control, black out a city, scramble software used by hospitals and banks..."

Dogs and cats sleeping together, mass hysteria.

Shimomura's quest to capture Mitnick and recover the cyber MacGuffin is supposed to be colored by existential self-loathing over having created the killer app in the first place. But Wong doesn't have the chops for such "I am become death, destroyer of worlds" stuff. His performance is flat and unconvincing.

With the stakes, such as they are, established, the manhunt is underway and the clock is ticking. Mitnick doesn't know what he's got, but he has a diabolical plan to decrypt the stolen files and find out. If you think that a diabolical plan to decrypt something doesn't make for jaw-dropping big screen thrills, you're right. But we're saved from boredom by interlaced shots of Shimomura working out problems on a dry erase board.

Don't fear the Hacker

The challenge in any hacker movie is telling a story that largely takes place on line. The few successfully entrants into the genre, including the 1983 classic WarGames, won by populating the film with strong, richly developed characters and a bulletproof plot.

Takedown takes the opposite approach, choosing to revel in its lack of humanity. Most of its characters are subdued and humorless, and the dialog is as cold and sterile as the whitewashed data centers that Shimomura grimly stalks on his ho-hum mission. (Despite the obvious homage meant by Icebreaker's handle, and the name of an FBI Agent Gibson, the film is too clean to be cyberpunk.)

Had Takedown brought integrity to this sense of isolation, the result might have been interesting, in the way of the independent film Pi. Instead, it desperately grasps at commerciality, insulting its audience with lazy deus-ex-machina plot twists and cheap stagecraft more worthy of a Friday night television drama than a major motion picture.

A typical (and entirely fictitious) scene finds Shimomura chasing Mitnick through the streets of Seattle. The hacker makes his escape by turning on his pursuer and shouting "You stole my wallet!," prompting passers-by to immediately jump Shimomura and beat him up. Did it take all four screenwriters to come up with that one?

The Seattle chase scene provides an example of the less libelous Mitnick character that emerged from the controversy surrounding the early Takedown script. This Mitnick is prone to random outbursts of rage, a creepy penchant for electronic eavesdropping and a lurking hatred of women, but unlike his dramaturgic forebear, he doesn't smash Shimomura in the head with a garbage can lid and leave him for dead in an alley.

In fact, Ulrich's Mitnick is downright sympathetic at times -- an intelligent, misunderstood guy who just happens to be cursed with an obsessive thirst for knowledge. One consequence of this kinder, gentler Mitnick is that the audience is given little reason to care whether he's captured or not. After squandering their dramatic license on the conceit of Shimomura's apocalyptic software, the filmmakers leave us skeptical that their Mitnick would actually use the cyberweapon. So by the time the movie's less-than-dramatic climax lists to shore like a derelict barge, we're really not very interested.

The film has redeeming qualities: Ulrich's performance is solid, the movie's stylized cinematography makes it interesting to look at, and you never see the boom mike. Computer geeks may find Takedown unintentionally funny, and careful observers can spot the real life Shimomura in a cameo role.

But having seen Takedown, and the film Mitnick's friends shot while protesting it, one prefers the later. Corley has vowed to release it on DVD, and one suspects that it will not come region encoded.

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