Editor’s Notes: Blackhat is currently out in wide theatrical release.
Michael Mann just might be one of the few working auteur filmmakers who can claim – often with ample evidence going back several decades – of never making a dull, inert, unengaging film regardless of the subject matter or the budget. Flawed films, surely, but never a dull, inert, unengaging film. With the release of Blackhat, Mann’s return behind the camera since he directed Public Enemies almost six years ago, that claim has been effectively rendered null and void. The fault lies primarily with Morgan Davis Foehl’s generic cyber-thriller script, but Mann does little to elevate the material. Sure, Mann’s visual flourishes are still present and accounted for – specifically swooping night-time shots played out over an electronic score and hyperkinetic action scenes – but an exhaustingly exposition-heavy screenplay, a perfunctory, obligatory romance, poor, underdeveloped dialogue, and a woefully miscast female lead, easily make Blackhat one of Mann’s weakest, most disappointing efforts as a filmmaker.
… Mann’s visual flourishes are still present and accounted for – specifically swooping night-time shots played out over an electronic score and hyperkinetic action scenes
Not that Mann doesn’t try to elevate Foehl’s script; he does, opening the film with CG-aided microphotography that takes moviegoers into the innards of computer networks, servers, and routers as malware, uploaded by parties unknown, almost causes a complete nuclear reactor in China. Oddly, the culprit or culprits doesn’t identify himself (or themselves), nor do they communicate their demands to Chinese authorities. A far more benign intrusion into a commodities market’s computer network leads to a spike in soy futures. The acts of cyber-terrorism lead to an uneasy, not wholly convincing alliance between the Chinese military’s cyber-security division and the FBI’s. The Chinese send their best man, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a U.S.-raised MIT grad, to work with an FBI unit led by Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). Chen refuses to cooperate, however, unless his one-time MIT roommate and “super-genius” hacker, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), joins the team. One problem: Despite his big brain and even bigger biceps, Hathaway is in the middle of a 15-year stretch for cyber-theft.
Hemsworth struggles when his character tries to inject humor into a potentially dire situation, the fault less of Hemsworth than Foehl’s insipid, colorless dialogue and Hemsworth’s recognition thereof.
It takes little pressure, a slight push actually, for the FBI to give Chen what he wants. Hathaway receives a “get out of jail free” card, but it won’t last: If he helps to catch the cyber-terrorist. If he doesn’t, he goes back to jail to complete his sentence. Chen’s younger sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), a top-flight network security expert living in the U.S., inexplicably joins the team, inexplicably because she’s present in Blackhat for one reason only: To serve as Hathaway’s obligatory romantic interest. Unfortunately, their romantic relationship never develops or matures into anything recognizably real (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). That’s partly due to Foehl’s uninspired writing, but it’s just as much the result of casting an actress who visibly suffers every time she tries to enunciate more than 3-4 words at a time. Curiously, her older brother’s English is nearly flawless (again, that’s likely due to casting).
Hemsworth has far less difficulty with Foehl’s dialogue (for obvious reasons). Even there, however, Hemsworth struggles when his character tries to inject humor into a potentially dire situation, the fault less of Hemsworth than Foehl’s insipid, colorless dialogue and Hemsworth’s recognition thereof. Hemsworth’s muscular, beefy physique doesn’t help too, of course. He’s as far from “genius super-hacker” as an actor or performer can come. Later, much, much later, after Blackhat has spent the better part of 90-minutes on glowing screens, computer codes, and globe-trotting, Hathaway turns into an action-hero cliché, suddenly capable of amazing feats of strength and dexterity, taking out a supposedly well trained group of mercenaries with barely a scratch or carefully tousled blond lock out of place. Mann’s oft-discussed focus on codes, specifically masculine codes of conduct and being in a criminal or law enforcement context, make an appearance in Blackhat (how could they do not with a male super-genius hacker with six-pack abs and a penchant for unbuttoned shirts at the center?), but like everything else in Blackhat, it’s surface-deep. Surface-deep also applies to the often compelling allure of Mann’s compositions – excluding low-light action/fight scenes where muddy, ugly photography predominates – but ultimately Blackhat feels less like a film made by Michael Mann than a film made by a Michael Mann imitator.
An exhaustingly exposition-heavy screenplay, a perfunctory, obligatory romance, poor, underdeveloped dialogue, and a woefully miscast female lead, easily make Blackhat one of Mann’s weakest, most disappointing efforts as a filmmaker.