Blackhat is a boring and visually-disappointing entry from Michael Mann, and a film perfectly suited for the January dumping ground.
In Blackhat we see what kind of terrible tragedies cyber-terrorism can cause when a Chinese power plant is hacked, resulting in a near meltdown. A joint Chinese and American task force investigates the attack, but lead Chinese investigator Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) recognizes that there’s only one man who can help them catch this master hacker: his old MIT buddy (and current federal prisoner) Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth).
Even though Hathaway is being held on a leash by agent Barrett (Viola Davis), the brilliant young hacker proves to be a formidable nuisance – and just as formidable an investigator. However, even as Chen, Hathaway and Chen’s sister Lien Cheng (Wei Tang) close in on the “blackhat” hacker, they realize that, with the stroke of a keyboard, their target can turn the tables and bring them down instead.
As the latest film by director Michael Mann, Blackhat is yet more evidence of a disappointing decline in the filmmaker’s cinematic prowess. It’s a movie that is film school bad on a technical level; it’s a poor showcase for stars like Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) and Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder); worst of all, it never even comes close to making its tech-heavy subject matter interesting or even comprehensible to most viewers.
Even Mann’s most ardent fans have criticized the director’s total implementation of digital camerawork in his films of late – and Blackhat lends massive clout to that criticism. The angles, blocking, shaky framing, cinematography and weak mis-en-scene composition all look like they belong in someone’s home movie project, not a big-budget techno thriller. In short, Blackhat is not even enjoyable to watch, aesthetically. When action scenes finally do arrive, they’re often hard to follow, or are just as poorly staged as the rest of the film – including an overly-elaborate (and completely ridiculous) climatic sequence. Mann needs to go back to the basics of cinematic storytelling, instead of trying to achieve some flawless sense of verisimilitude.
The script by first time feature-film writer Morgan Davis Foehl feels like a script by a first timer. There are unnecessary and pointless flourishes (like sequences of watching digital data move from one place to another); narrative gear-switches so clunky and awkward it’s almost funny (whenever that “love story” subplot comes crashing in); logical gaps everywhere; and a basic chase plotline so heavy with tech-jargon and esoteric meaning that the characters are left feeling intrigued or impacted by events that the audience needs a textbook to fully understand.
By the time characters are dropping “big reveals” about the hacker’s “master plan,” it’s almost laughable to actually hear what the fuss was all about. Though riding a wave of piqued interests thanks to recent major hacking attacks, the actual plot at the center of Blackhat is fundamentally boring when compared to recent examples like the Sony, Playstation or Xbox breaches (rigging global economics – OMG!). This film may just kill any sexy notions of cyber warfare and terrorism prevention; despite what the trailers try to sell, this is leagues away from the action-packed missions of Jack Bauer on 24. (More like if you watched a whole movie about Chloe…).
Star Chris Hemsworth is done no favors by a role like this. From impressive physicality in Marvel’s Avengers universe to solid dramatic chops in a film like Rush, Hemsworth is a great leading man in the right role – but here he seems miscast (because most hackers have NFL physiques), off-balance (what accent are we going for?), and stuck with insufficient charisma to fill all the dead air that Mann sticks him with. This is one role that Hemsworth could stand to have people forget about.
Hemsworth’s co-stars Wei Tang and Leehorn Wang (both of whom co-starred in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution) seem to be more suited and comfortable in their roles as Chinese cyber protection agents (or whatever the official job title is). Wang plays a good hard-boiled cop, while Tang is a great balance to place between Wang and Hemsworth. The subplot about the trio is as muddled as so many other things in the Blackhat script, but Tang actually handles her end of the dramatic story well – as opposed to Hemsworth, who is clunky and wooden in most scenes where things get intimate.
Meanwhile, actors like Viola Davis, John Ortiz (Fast & Furious) and Holt McCallany (Gangster Squad) are handed some pretty muddled roles as the U.S. law enforcement/intelligence liaisons assigned to Hathaway and his friends. Whatever character arcs the respective actors were on, the final cut of the film makes them out to be forgettable plot devices, helping the principal characters move from clue to clue via some thin “conflict” and “resolution.” Eventually the story moves away from these side pieces – and apparently, the entire idea of the U.S. government keeping reasonable tabs on dangerous assets (another gaping plot hole in this shoddy script).
In the end, Blackhat is a boring and visually-disappointing entry from Michael Mann, and a film perfectly suited for the January dumping ground. If you’re an action fan, this is more keyboard warfare than gunplay – but there are a few shootouts that recall classic Mann (Heat), so that’s something. Put this one on your Redbox schedule, but take this life-hack advice and skip the theater.
Blackhat is now playing in theaters. It is 133 minutes long and is Rated R for violence and some language.