Review: Michael Mann's 'Blackhat' a Long Mile of Dull Computer Code
by Jeremy Kirk
January 16, 2015
What a time for Blackhat to come out! A procedural thriller about capturing a nefarious cyberhacker seems like feast for the masses after Sony Pictures being hacked by North Korea - or one of their own employees depending on who you believe. The tension should be built into what is already a promising return from director Michael Mann. That's not exactly what we get, though. For all its potential, Blackhat ends up being a run-of-the-mill paper chase with little solid action and even less in form of Mann-heavy cool. Chris Hemsworth, always good for some charm, doesn't even seem to be playing along in what amounts to an unfortunate and mostly dull misfire, a sad affair given Mann's mostly flawless film history.
The cyber-terrorist who represents the eponymous figure first targets a nuclear power plant in Beijing, China, then the stock exchange in Washington D.C. Naturally the best each country can offer to take down this sadistic hacker before he strikes again just isn't good enough. They'll have to rely on the expertise of an imprisoned hacker (Hemsworth), now released on furlough, if they want to take the Blackhat down.
It's not a very involved plot. Sure, the screenplay from Morgan Davis Foehl branches out into a complex web of hackers, points of destination, and code. There is lots and lots of code. But the story tends to run along the standard good-guy-versus-bad-guy routine for just about all it's worth. Everything along the way is just window dressing for developing the world around all the hats chasing each other.
It isn't shocking that Mann took this film on to direct. Throughout his directing career Mann has tended to lean more towards the simple stories with lots of character. Whether it's a middle-aged thief trying to snatch one last score so he can retire in peace or a pair of Miami vice detectives trying to bring in their latest sting, the stories Mann tells can always be whittled down to their character's most basic needs. Even Heat, the sprawling crime epic for which Mann is best known, is easily boiled down to its black-versus-white core.
Blackhat, unfortunately, is never as focused or as tightly structured as even Mann's more grandiose works. Much of this can be put at Foehl's feet, his dialogue hitting the right marks for relaying information but never coming through as creative or even interesting. The love story angle where Hemsworth's hacker seems to immediately fall in love with a friend's sister is as obligatory as it is forced, a prerequisite for such an action thriller that, believe it or not, could have easily been handled more naturally given the course the film takes.
What's not on Foehl is Blackhat's execution. At times it resembles the aesthetic style Mann has taken on since he began shooting digitally ten years ago on Collateral. His handheld movement in rougher patches is still on full display, though now it comes across as fake tension rather than the natural suspense of being in the middle of a gunfight. Those guns, by the way, still have Mann's trademark sound, loud and lifelike like gunshots in film should sound. But it rarely captures that finesse and slick-but-grounded mood that has made Mann's more recent works so memorable.
Hemsworth, however, doesn't even strike a mood with his character, going through the motions of an action star without ever appearing to put in any effort. He attempts something of an East Cost accent early in the film then may as well say "Fuck it" out loud as he moves into the more basic, American accent. It's hard to say if this is Hemsworth or Mann's fault, probably a combination of the two, but the actor's bored demure and half-closed eyes give the impression he wasn't given much direction on what to do.
Fortunately he has a supporting cast playing background for much of the movie. Viola Davis and Holt McCallany play guard to Hemsworth's hacker, and they each do solid work with minimal characters. Davis is actually given a moment of background that goes nowhere and does nothing. It's nice to see her pull off real emotion, though. Tang Wei plays that obligatory love interest, which she handles with little effort. Again, not like she's given much to do with this character. To say nothing of the "blackhats" that fill Mann's film this time around. They're all one-note, the "main baddie" ultimately having a motive that's more 007 than Zero Dark Thirty. Yes, I know Mann didn't direct that latter film.
But Zero Dark Thirty is more attuned to the realism we could expect form a Michael Mann film at one point. Not real-world sincerity but honest to the world Michael Mann was building at the time. Hell, even Public Enemies pulled that off, and it's shaky crime film at best. Like the villains it gives us Blackhat is all one-note, rarely going for anything but the obvious choice, showing nothing of the deeper subtext that this is the idea of terrorism in 2015 - or, my God, it very well could be in the near future - and broadly going through the motions to ultimately tell us nothing at all. Blackout stubbornly tramples on what potential its director and star could have brought. Instead of another entry in Mann's until-now reliable slate of crime capers, Blackhat resembles a rough draft of a first film.