Review: Blackhat

Blackhat Michael Mann’s latest international computer hacking adventure, Blackhat, pits Chris Hemsworth against an unknown enemy who doesn’t seem to be rooted in the traditional trappings of cyberterrorism. Teaming both Chinese and American investigative agencies, Mann takes us on an global ride using computer hacking as the backdrop for a modern day cat and mouse film. The film is shot in Michael Mann’s signature style that we have know so very well from such classics as The Insider, Collateral, and certainly Heat. However, there is nothing classic about Blackhat. The title references the term used for computer hackers who work outside the law for their own personal gain, conversely a whitehat would be a hacker who works within the law perhaps to secure a system against break-ins from blackhats. With this knowledge the film takes one very large assumption of the audience and it largely buries the film early on. Blackhat purports that watching people do actual hacking is somehow interesting; spoilers...its not. There use to be the complaint that computer interactions in movies was so outlandish compared to the real thing. However, this film is a textbook example of why there needs to be a middle ground.

The film begins with an explosion at a Chinese nuclear power plant. This catastrophe is orchestrated by our movie’s villain who remains unseen until the near end of the film. His motives for doing so are unclear at this point but he is certainly responsible. The lead investigator of the explosion, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), discovers that the detonation was triggered using a remote program and he is off to solve the crime. He also involves his sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang) who is working for the same Chinese investigative bureau. Together they head to the United States to work with the FBI to solve the mystery of this hacker. Their liaison is Carol Barrett (Viola Davis)  who is leery of working with the Chinese to begin with, so there is some early on tension there. However, it soon fades and everyone is friends; pointless contention. When Chen suggests, more so demands, that they get the help of imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) the story begins to take shape. Hathaway is brought aboard and the newly formed team begin their investigation. It is at this point the movie falls completely apart.

The first hour and half of this movie are completely boring. There is scene after scene of anticlimactic nonsense. Mann has a vision, but just can’t seem to make it engaging on any level. There are relationships formed that seem to just happen with no sort of run up. Our heroes run back and forth from country to country with nothing really driving the narrative forward. For a cat and mouse film, there is very little cat and the mouse is boring me to tears. Mann’s shooting style, which I normally love, is absolutely abysmal here. Slow and then fast panning just made everything look like mush on screen. He never kept the camera still for more than 30 seconds (high estimate). Over time, Mann’s films have begun to slip and this one slips and falls right off the edge.

There are a few action sequences that were representative of the Michael Mann of old and those looked great purely from a visual perspective. However, they made little to no sense in the way they were being executed. Normally, Mann goes for almost hyper-realism here. This time we had a large amount of one shot kills that was something closer to a comic book movie; it just felt off.

In the end, the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the heroes prevail. Chris Hemsworth’s Nicholas Hathaway ranged from incredibly bland to overly melodramatic. As a person who is suppose to be a hacker he is just not believable. He still looks largely like he stepped off the set of Thor. Wei Tang is fine as the investigator/love interest but her relationship with Hathaway was not flushed out and felt ham-fisted when it was shown. Their interaction was plastic and lacked any level of depth. As a movie that hit theaters just after the first of the year I should have known this was going to be the case, but Blackhat somehow managed to surpass my rather low expectations. I hope to see Michael Mann learn from this film, and get back to his roots.

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