If you’re a fan of Heat, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a Michael Mann techno thriller sounds like just the ticket.
Mann’s first foray into film since 2009’s Public Enemies, Blackhat promised the glossy neon visuals of Miami Vice, the race-against-the-clock forensics of Manhunter – in short, a combination of all the traits (with the exception, perhaps, of Last of the Mohicans) that had made his earlier work so stimulating.
By the time Blackhat was released, however, the furore surrounding Edward Snowden and Julian Assange had already abated and the film itself, well…
Blackhat follows Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), an imprisoned hacker straight out a TV procedural. He has long hair, a perfect physique, and an aversion to authority figures. When a blackhat, or evil hacker, detonates a coolant tank in a Chinese power plant, cyber crime expert Captain Chen Dawai (Lust, Caution’s Wang Leehom), ties the code used back to Hathaway, his former college room-mate, and arranges for his temporary release. Along with some well-respected but expendable supporting faces, it’s up to them to stop the hacker before he strikes again.
From its opening moments, however, Blackhat struggles with the same issue that turned so many ‘90s hacker movies into a phantasmagoria of computer graphics, namely finding a way to dramatize what boils down to lines of code (short of The Matrix, it’s hard to think of a single film that’s succeeded).
Mann shows the effect that the hacker’s command has on a system at a microscopic level – blue blocks of electricity march across silicon boards like armies at war – but the effect is more Tron than, say, the title sequence of Fight Club. The micro only matters if the macro is at stake.
Despite vast amounts of tech talk and Hemsworth’s ability to deliver it semi-convincingly – which is about all the film asks of him – Blackhat never really seems in sync with the technology it’s supposed to be about.
For all the talk of malware, RATs, DAT files, and IPs, Morgan Davis Foehl’s script shows no insight into what these complex and seemingly precarious systems mean for the world that’s built upon them, our world. The film as a whole seems content to intersperse flights of rushing around with bouts of exposition in place of thematic development.
Leehom’s inclusion in the film initially feels like an intriguing spin on the usual formula of White America Saves the World, but it quickly becomes apparent that his honorary status as secondary protagonist is a cynical ploy to appeal to Chinese audiences.
Similarly the likes of Oscar nominee Viola Davis and character actors Holt McCallany and John Ortiz are utterly wasted as various bureaucratic functionaries. Blackhat mercilessly dispenses its supporting cast that, aside from one heart-thumping shock, feel like exploitative attempts to make us care (9/11 even gets name checked).
This is not the Mann who did Heat, nor even the rather more critically mixed Public Enemies. His reliance on shaky-cam, ugly jump cuts, and slo-mo “awareness” shots suggest director for hire rather than passion project. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is classic Mann – lots of gorgeous neon and alluring soft focus – but this simply bespeaks production values: for a film whose protagonist claims it’s not about money or ones and zeroes Blackhat’s $70 million budget is splashed all over the screen. The less said about the ostensibly sliced-and-diced synth score the better.
With its exotic locales and climax set amidst a torchlight parade, Blackhat seems to be aspiring to a more realistic Bond – if Skyfall ended with a knife fight between Thor, Mayor Chessani from True Detective season two, and a beardy Dutchman – but it has nothing to hang its hat on.
Hathaway’s core relationship with Dawai’s sister, Chan Lei (Teng Wien), comes out of nowhere, let alone chemistry, and shoot-outs on parking garage ramps and between shipping containers don’t take away from the generic feeling.
For a film about global interconnectedness, Blackhat is fatally out of the loop.