Blackhat Is High On Visuals, Not Story: A Review


Story undercuts action in Michael Mann’s cyber-thriller

Michael Mann has lost it. The director, who has been defined for his specialized visuals and insular storytelling in films from Thief to Heat to Collateral, has lost his cinematic appeal. His last picture, Public Enemies, was a mixed bag of a period crime drama about the FBI’s pursuit of John Dillinger. Six years later, Mann has returned with Blackhat (which is slang for “hacker”), a cyber-thriller that is well-timed in its arrival – just a few weeks after the Sony Pictures hack – as it attempts to expose to the world the dangers of computer manipulation when it comes to doomsday scenarios.

Though it seems strange; that a Michael Mann pic gets unceremoniously dropped in January, a month notorious for studios dumping projects they have no faith to release in spring time. Then when the first cyber attack occurs, resulting in the destruction of a nuclear reactor in China, the real-world horror is quickly brushed away so that we get a standard-issue thriller lacking logic or engaging characters.

Even the opening visual number of the malware attack has a dated sensibility. Seriously, it felt like 1995’s Hackers as we see a virus plunge into a computer system taking over. This exploration over cables and chips is repeated a few more times with future attacks, but the CGI effect, while more visually appealing than watching code move on screen or someone typing frantically on a back-lit keyboard, is an extended visual that gets old fast.

The cyber-terrorist attack gets the attention of law enforcement officials from China and the U.S. and a joint investigation begins. The two leads of the team include FBI agent Barrett (Viola Davis) and Chinese official Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), plus Chen’s sister, Chen Lein (Wei Tang). Then there’s Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway, a hacker serving a stretch in prison who is brought in to help with the case. Why Hathaway? Because he happens to be Chen’s old roomie from their MIT days, and because the story requires (not really) a romantic subplot where Lein falls hard for Hathaway and is reciprocated likewise.

Globetrotting to exotic locations like Hong Kong and Malaysia, the team races to find the identity of the enigmatic hacker, which requires Nicholas’s own code cracking skills and backdooring his way into systems in an attempt to stay a move or two ahead of the enemy in this cat-and-mouse game. Then the enemy cat sends hired goons to kill the team with extreme prejudice.

That’s my mild attempt to condense Blackhat into something of merit, but the film itself is a big disappointment. Aside from a few sequences that show that Mann at age 71 still has all his wits about him when it comes to shooting and editing action, these momentary highlights are just that: highlights. They are moments that will provide movie bliss for Mann’s legion of fans. Had it maintained such heightened consistency throughout and toned down the thickly plotted story and hokey dialogue it would be an exciting thriller. Instead, Blackhat is a missed opportunity of a topical nature.

A big part of the problem stems from screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl and a lack of insight. Having learned that this is his first credited screenplay and his previous experience came from assisting on the edits of two Adam Sandler movies (ugh), you can connect the dots and see why Blackhat is not surefooted when it comes to characters or where to go next in the story.

The most glaring sin is the romantic subplot of Nicholas and Lein. I can buy Hemsworth as the hunky hacker with chivalrous undertones, and who is also a master of self-defense and shooting guns, but the romance tries to make us care about these two when all it does is clog the pacing with its wasted screen time.

Blackhat is typical Michael Mann and that’s the problem. His love of digital photography has taken a greater hold making the video aesthetic look cheap when it should be shimmering. The story edit is no better (it’s a slow-moving 126 minutes before credits roll). The film only works on rare occasions and those occasions would make for great highlights on their own without the connective tissue of a narrative to get in the way.

Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Morgan Davis Foehl
Notable Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Holt McCallany

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