Rating: 5 out of 10
Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway
Viola Davis as Carol Barrett
Wei Tang as Lien Chen
Leehom Wang as Chen Dawai
Holt McCallany as Mark Jessup
Ritchie Coster as Kassar
Yorick van Wageningen as Sdak
John Ortiz as Henry Pollack
Directed by Michael Mann
If you’ve never seen a Michael Mann film before, then blackhat – a race by a Chinese cop (Wang) and notorious computer criminal (Hemsworth) to stop the mystery hacker who sabotaged a Chinese nuclear reactor – is probably not the one to start with. If you have, then you will recognize his now well-worn tricks of the trade its runtime is filled with, but likely not appreciate them. blackhat is filled to the brim with strong men acting strong with each other and delicate with the women they love, discussions on personal relationships amid splashy montages and the odd, jarring piece of violence which weaves it all together.
Everything Mann has ever done in a crime film is repeated here with little to no innovation, erasing much of the work he has done over the past thirty years to fight the slander that as a director he is more style than substance. It’s as if Mann has simply run out of things to say about the crime story, but doesn’t know what else to talk about anymore.
All that’s really new is the setting itself as, with just a bit of computer code to go on, Hathaway and his government handler (Davis) track their prey from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Rather than deal with any ‘stranger in a strange land’ syndrome of being in a foreign land (both Hong Kong and outside prison), Mann has little to offer but some words from Hathaway about what prison time does to a person what they have to do to handle. He replaces characterization and insight with mere plot advancing statements and his now classic vérité gun battles.
The action elements when they come are excellent. He’s fully perfected his style since Heat from ringing, realistic sound design to the cold ballet of active shooters and deadly ricochets. And if that’s all you want from a Michael Mann film, then you’re in luck, because that’s all you’re going to get; the rest is simply perfunctory from beginning to end, as if the director were aping previous work like a copyist at a light box.
It’s a feeling which seems to have gripped everyone involved from cast to crew, with little beyond the action beats to make anyone care about what’s happening on screen even as Hathaway and company discover they are the hunted as much as the hunters while playing cat and mouse across South Asia. The conflict between a desire for realism and excitement among a plot and milieu has increased that feeling of ennui, enforcing creative choices that hinder more than help the film.
Mann’s longtime experiment with digital cinematography gets ahead of him with many of the nighttime scenes taking on a totally video feel which may have meant to increase the immediacy and visceral nature of the events taking place, but instead just heighten the unreality, particularly when juxtaposed with by now clichéd camera pans along the inner workings of computer networks which stand in for visually dull computer elements of the plot.
Even the sound design, usually a highlight of Mann’s films, is wonky with dramatic sequences frequently squashed beneath effects and music in an attempt to make them more purely cinematic, which instead just loses the information trying to be passed along. An issue which is exacerbated by an attempt at naturalistic performances of unnatural, plot and jargon-filled dialogue which falls flat coming from most of the actors. The usually reliable Davis comes across as bored and uninterested, talking about paperwork and the husband she lost on 9/11 in the same flat monotone.
Only Hemsworth, despite being more believable as a streetwise thug than a hacker supreme, transcends his mediocre surroundings to display real interest in what is happening to him as if this were his last shot at redemption as much as Hathaway’s, who breaks into the NSA to find the missing pieces to the mystery hacker’s plan. That decision sends in Hathaway out on his own, one step ahead of the police trying to throw him back in jail and two steps behind the criminals, and is the only point where blackhat seems to come alive.
With much of its baggage chucked, Mann is able to focus on just Hathaway and his predicament creating real urgency and taking advantage of the one actor able to truly hold the screen, even if it is through a rumbly accent that frequently sounds like a Stallone impersonation. It also lets Mann break free from some of the weaker production design and show off the epic scope of his endeavor, stretching from LA to Hong Kong to Jakarta.
But it’s too little, too late in a style over substance thriller which doesn’t have even enough to offer in the style department to be worthwhile. For all Hemsworth tries to hold things together, he’s fighting inertia most of the time. Inertia in the shape of a complex plot and a villain who stays in the shadows so long that when he finally makes his appearance, the drama of the moment is not heightened the way Mann seems to be expecting. Inertia in the form of a screen romance which never takes flight due to Tang’s bored line readings and an overreliance on visuals and montage. Inertia in the form of ‘seen it, done it’ carelessness blackhat can’t seem to shake.
With just a few alterations, this could have been a thrilling episode of “Miami Vice” back in the day, and if it had been, it would have been called “thrilling and inventive.” But that was then; now, it’s just rote.