There’s always something alluring about movies that have been withheld from distribution. When I heard about Takedown, I was intrigued. When I heard that its alternate title was Hackers 2: Takedown, I was obsessed. A sequel to my favorite guilty pleasure film of the ’90s? I had to find it...
The Fugitive Gains
Directed by Joe Chappelle, Takedown stars Skeet Ulrich as Kevin Mitnick, an intrepid hacker (or “cracker,” according to the film), who became the FBI’s Public Enemy Number One in the early ’90s. What did Mitnick do to earn federal indignation? Nothing more than any other hacker would do. He breached weak security systems, made copies of files for his personal use, and was a general nuisance. Mitnick popped up on the fed’s radar after he pissed off the wrong person.
Mitnick tread on the dainty toes of Tsutomu Shimomura. A security spook and self-important spotlight hog, Shimomura had friends in the government and media, a dangerous combination. His acquaintance, John Markoff of The New York Times, had been using Mitnick as a meal ticket for years. First, Markoff made the hacker a “star” of Cyberpunk, a hacker exposé, and then by spotlighting Mitnick in a series of “cybercrime” articles for the Times. In these pieces, Markoff demonized Mitnick, painting him as a threat to everything from “national security” to the intrepid reader’s personal bank account.
Being a lazy lot, journalists picked up Markoff’s story and continued to hyperbolize. They held up Mitnick as a rampant hooligan who jeered at federal laws as he plotted to take over the world. In our “enlightened era,” Kevin Minick was on the fast track to becoming a modern day Julius Rosenberg.
Dimension Films, the “young, edgy” subsidiary of Miramax, put the kibosh on Takedown after some legal entanglements. Unlike the original Hackers, this film tried to find its roots more in nonfiction, taking its title and subject matter from Shimomura (and Markoff)’s book Takedown. Apparently, neither Kevin Mitnick nor Jonathan Littman, author of The Fugitive Game, took too kindly to the liberal interpretation of Takedown’s subject matter.
I’m not sure where the title “Hackers 2: Takedown” came from. The bootleg video copy I found merely bore the name “Takedown” while the only legitimate video release is the French-dubbed “La Cybertr@que.” Just to dispel any possible confusion, if Takedown were meant as a sequel to Hackers, it would have been a “name only” sequel (kind of like Halloween III: Season of the Witch). There’s no triumphant final-reel return of Cereal Killer, Acid Burn, or Zero Cool. Takedown lacks the goofiness of the original Hackers and, if anything, takes itself far too seriously.
While subtitled “The pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick, America’s most wanted computer outlaw-by the man who did it,” Shimomura’s book is more of an egocentric look into the philosophy, skiing, and eating habits of Tsutomu Shimomura. Below are some exciting excerpts:
- “Julia and I sent out for dinner from an Italian place called Bambino’s.” (Page 18)
- “That evening we ordered dinner out again-Indian food this time.” (Page 21)
- “It was cold and gray out, and the only time we left the house was briefly at midday, when we wandered over to Haight Street to have lunch at Cha Cha Cha, a tapas place that attracts an eclectic crowd, ranging from those who live in the Haight to white collar financial district types and people of various ethnicities and hues from all over the city.” (Page 22)
- “About nine that night Andrew and I met for dinner at a place near campus called Pizza Nova.” (Page 48)
- “Once at dinner I dropped a mushroom on the floor, and when I went to pick it up and eat it, my father said, ‘It’s dirty.’” (Page 54)
- “To add a little incentive we had lunch from the Thai House, one of our regular spots about two kilometers from the campus.” (Page 75)
- “We took the elevator downstairs and drove off campus to Rubio’s, an inexpensive fish-taco restaurant, where neither of us was particularly happy to be.” (Page 78)
- “We stopped for supplies in Auburn at Ikeda’s, the funky roadside fast food restaurant/natural food grocery store that has hamburgers, which I don’t eat, but also has good milk shakes, french fries, and fresh and dried fruits and nuts, which I do. When we got to Truckee, I bought a pizza for dinner in town, which ended up being stone cold by the time we got to the cabin fifteen minutes later.” (Page 108)
- “After a Mexican dinner in Fairfax, we drove back to San Francisco to pick up Julia’s car, a 1987 Mazda hatchback, which had sat in front of Toad Hall for several months while she trekked in Nepal.” (Page 119)
- “The Buckeye was Bavarian in an antlers-on-the-wall sort of way. I ordered salmon and Julia a shepherd’s pie, while Andrew opted for some remarkably large slab of meat, obviously taking advantage of the menu.” (Page 155)
- “As we ate the mild Chinese scallops, shrimp and snow peas, and kung pao chicken that had been brought in, I began to assess what we now knew.” (Page 160)
- “We skated in circles, until he arrived and drove us to the Samurai, a Japanese restaurant in Sausalito.” (Page 178)
- “I asked her about the difference between two of their veggie burgers and she launched in to a detailed and entertaining technical dissertation about the distinction between their Soy Burger and their Garden Burger.” (Page 225)
With such stunningly insipid source material, it’s no wonder that the film version of Takedown is not a whirlwind of adventure. Likewise, it’s not too surprising that one or more of the film’s four writers-David Newman, Leslie Newman, John Danza, and Howard A. Rodman-cribbed notes for scenes from Littman’s work. For example, the opening of Takedown has Mitnick and his buddy Alex Lowe (Donal Logue playing Alex DePayne) meeting a turncoat hacker, Justin Petersen (Jeremy Sisto playing Eric Heinz). The dialogue comes nearly verbatim from pages 22-24 of The Fugitive Game.
In Littman’s book, after a few chapters of fictionalized dramatizations of what may have gone on in Mitnick’s pre-fugitive days (stuff ripe for a cornball movie) the author becomes integral to his own book. Soon, page after page of the book contain tiresome transcriptions of rambling phone calls from Mitnick to Littman. While not being very compelling, these recollections manage to give a glimmer of insight to Mitnick’s flaky character.
In Takedown, Skeet Ulrich lacks the raw materials to flesh out Kevin Mitnick. Rather, Ulrich plays him as a low-key sociopath with little-to-no motivation. What could have been an electronic cat and mouse game between Mitnick and nemesis Shimomura becomes a tepid manhunt movie with main characters who manage to elude the audience’s sympathy. Mitnick is no Richard Kimball and Shimomura is no Sam Gerard.
Played by Russell Wong, Takedown’s Tsutomu Shimomura is a handsome Asian dick who’s a sex machine to his favorite chick, Julia (Angela Featherstone). In the film, Shimomura earns Mitnick’s ire after testifying before a Senate subcommittee. Shimomura’s “hot shit” routine of hacking a Nokia phone and transforming it into a scanner makes Mitnick think that such technology would help keep him one step ahead of the FBI.
In his book and in the film, Shimomura comes off as such a stupefying prick that I can imagine hackers around the globe relishing the thought of fucking him over. It’s only via sketchy “evidence” that Shimomura decides that Mitnick has hacked into his system and downloaded the Nokia files. Mitnick’s actions are rude but far from life threatening. Thus, the audience learns that Mitnick unwittingly downloaded a file from Shimomura’s computer that could be used for evil if it fell into the wrong hands. Ooh, scary!
Here Takedown becomes as paranoid as the Markoff articles. If Mitnick discovers and decrypts this file, nothing could be “unhackable” to him. Named “Contempt,” this imaginary program is the “destroyer of defense files”-similar to the “worm” that plagued the heroes of Hackers. Details of Contempt are kept murky at best, serving only to give Mitnick something concrete to do (decrypt the file) and provide Shimomura with motivation for catching Mitnick that supercedes personal vendetta. Throughout his “investigation,” Shimomura violates more rights and laws than Mitnick, all the while empowered by the Federal government. The irony of this is all but lost on the film.
It is only in the tepid denouement that the film comes close to broaching an intelligent discourse with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. In his prison’s unlikely stark white visiting room, Mitnick sits across from Shimomura, separated by safety glass and asks, “Why am I in here and you’re out there?” It would seem that the only difference between the two men are their social situations. Shimomura spends his time rollerblading on the beach, while Mitnick lives in relative squalor. More important, Shimomura surrounds himself with an experienced and faithful team of friends and co-workers (who resemble “the Scooby gang” when out searching for Mitnick’s cellphone signal) while Mitnick’s only “friend” is the duplicitous Alex Lowe who enjoyed an exploitative relationship with Mitnick-egging the hacker on and stealing his wife when Mitnick is forced to go underground.
I’m Not John Dillinger
It’s useless to outline the discrepancies between Takedown and the material that inspired it. There has yet to be a definitive recollection of what really occurred with the “crimes” and capture of Kevin Mitnick: personal bias, ego, and outright lies cloud every account.
Divorcing Takedown from its source leaves a humdrum affair that tries too hard to be a “thriller.” Tracking down the “elusive” Mitnick seems a relatively simple task and is only complicated by on-foot chases, freak coincidences, and Mitnick’s apparent “spider sense” that flashes danger when he’s telnetting to Lowe.
As a “lost movie,” Takedown proves to be the worst kind of forbidden fruit; it leaves an entirely bitter aftertaste. Factual and legal ramifications aside, if Takedown remains buried in the U.S., it’s no great loss to the Skeet Ulrich oeuvre.