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Review: Blackhat

Michael Cusumano here to take a break from Oscar chatter to discuss a film that was once predicted to be a big year end Oscar contender, but which has just been unceremoniously dumped into theaters in the January wasteland.

I’m not going to pretend I can speak with any authority about the accuracy of Blackhat’s portrayal of cutting edge computer hacking. As a technological moron tapping out this review on an iPad that may as well be powered by pixie dust for all I understand its inner workings, it is not my place to say.

Michael Mann’s new film certainly carries itself as if it’s nailing the technical details at every turn. When Chris Hemsworth’s super-hacker replies “one month” after he is asked how long it will take to break an encryption, you can feel the movie high-fiving itself for going with an accurate answer rather than taking the opportunity to let its lead character show off. The same goes for Mann’s decision to show screen after screen of ugly code, rather than sleek, audience-friendly graphics.

So I'm not equipped to say if Blackhat is dead-on in the details. [More...]

What I can say is that Blackhat gives the impression Mann was so invested in the film's technical aspects that he neglected to place that material in a story worth giving a damn about or to populate the film with characters who have personalities developed beyond grim competence. The result is a third rate thriller plot about a badass and his team of agents taking down a super-villain. A sluggish assembly of scenes where people go tappity-tappity on their laptops and things go kerflooey on the other side of the world. Critics would no doubt be dismissing Blackhat as a weak tea Michael Mann imitation were it not directed by the auteur himself.

The film opens with a disastrous cyber attack on Chinese nuclear power plant, followed by a takeover of the New York Stock Exchange where a hacker plunges the financial market into chaos. When the Chinese and US governments conclude the same hacker is behind both attacks, they are forced into a tense collaboration. In their desperation the Americans agree to release Nick Hathaway, Chris Hemsworth's bad boy super-hacker, currently serving a sixteen-year prison sentence. Hathaway, you see, was responsible for writing the original computer code that has been weaponized by this mysterious cyber-terrorist. The deal: Hathaway brings down the cyber-terrorist and wins his freedom.

I don’t think it’s unfair to ask that if a film opens with a hacker who can manipulate any computer system, one who can change the balance of a bank account as easily as we log into our email, then the film should build to something more interesting than a lame scheme to steal millions. When a director as sharp as Mann takes on a project like Blackhat one assumes it’s because he has things to say about the realities of the modern world and the implications of computer terrorism. Yet the more Blackhat drags on, the smaller its scope becomes. If Mann has anything of substance to say I couldn't hear over the plot’s avalanche of silliness.

Again, I’m no expert. Maybe the realities of modern cyber-terrorism do bear a striking resemblance to plot devices cribbed from 50-year-old James Bond villains. One thing I do question, however, is what exactly is the point of setting up a duel between the two greatest hackers on Earth if they are only going to settle it by showing up at public festival to try to stab each other?

It’s easy to see why Hemsworth would want to play a character defined by more than his formidable biceps, but the attempt to stretch his screen image backfires. Despite his character’s purported brilliance, Hemsworth only comes alive in the film’s sporadic bursts of action. Outside the moments when he is smashing a stool over a goon’s head Hathaway is a dull collection of spare parts left over from other slick Michael Mann protagonists. (He declares he is serving his jail sentence on his time not on their time. So badass.) The only actor who punches through is Viola Davis as the American agent responsible for springing Hathaway, and she only succeeds by dint of being the performer who most supplies a personality without the aid of a screenplay.

I don’t want to get my straight male critic credentials revoked so I will point out that despite everything Mann’s muscular style often makes Blackhat watchable, even enjoyable. There is a neat bit where the camera zooms into the inner workings of a computer network until the digital molecules of an incoming virus rush at the audience like a herd of stampeding wildebeests. And though the film consists of characters we don’t care about acting in defiance of logic Mann can make it look so cool when characters we don’t care about act in defiance of logic. If you saw a shot or two out of context you could easily mistake Blackhat for a terrific movie, so beautifully does Mann make the surface shimmer. It’s when you place Blackhat in context of an all-too-rare Michael Mann movie that it comes into focus as a crushing disappointment.

Grade: C- 

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Reader Comments (3)

I wasn't expecting the Michael Mann version of a Tony Scott movie, but that's what I got from Blackhat, and I quite enjoyed that. The plot is ultimately pretty silly, the characters are beyond stock, no argument there, but Mann's mastery of the form is intact, and his ability to build character and theme through images and sound (especially music) is still pretty much second to none.

Your point about the ending is well taken, though. For the first hour, Mann's main point was how inadequate traditional law enforcement bureaucracies are given the challenges posed by complex cyber attacks - but then the solution is for the hero to go kill a bunch of people. It's definitely a cop out, but by that point the movie had successfully morphed into a classic Mann existential hero thing, so I just kinda rolled with it.

January 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I hated this movie so much.
It looks awful, it has terrible dialogue, and the story is muddled and badly told.
Even Mann's famous shootouts were misfires in this movie. Worst of all is the bad performance by Wei Tang, who we all fell in love with in Lust Caution; here she struggles with the English language and in turn turns in a depressingly awkward performance.

And she has ZERO chemistry with Hemsworth, even worse chemistry (if you can believe that) than the chemistry between Li Gong and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice.
You don't buy their relationship for one second, you're not invested what happens to them or their "love".

Early contender for Worst Movie of 2015.

January 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

I like baseball

February 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

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