A film review by Craig J. Koban January 22, 2015

BLACKHAT jj

2015, R, 135 mins.

 

Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway  /  Viola Davis as Carol Barrett  /  Wei Tang as Lien  /  Leehom Wang as Chen  /  Manny Montana as Lozano  /  William Mapother as Rich Donahue

Directed by Michael Mann  /  Written by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl

Michael Mann’s BLACKHAT – his first film in six years – is a new high tech thriller that touches on some tangible real world concerns about the future of cyber terrorism.  There is no doubt that the film certainly feels timely and thematically relevant, not to mention that it has its finger on the pulse of our global anxieties regarding technological attacks on established infrastructures.  

Yet, BLACKHAT rarely becomes suspenseful or even modestly involving, mostly because its dopey scripting and shoddy pacing is shockingly ill-conceived and executed.  This is especially sad coming form Mann, the virtuoso director that gave us HEAT, COLLATERAL, and MANHUNTER.  BLACKHAT is far too tedious, dramatically negligible, and tension-free as far as Mann films are concerned. 

The film also makes the blunder of horribly misusing Chris Hemsworth in the lead role, an actor of limitless on-screen appeal and charm (THOR proves this), but here he’s an emotionally vacant and stoic bore (not to mention that he has to churn out obligatory dialogue with a heavy – and not very convincing – New Yorker accent).  In the film he plays Nicholas Hathaway , a former M.I.T.  “blackhat” (slang for “hacker”) that has been incarcerated for years because of his past cyber criminal misdeeds, but his knowledge in the field is undeniable and incomparable.  There’s a cyber terrorist attack on a Chinese nuclear reactor, which causes both American and Chinese authorities to pool together their resources to find the culprit and end any other future calamities.  Of course, this brings the joint anti-terrorism task force to seek out Nicholas for his unique set of computer skills. 

 

 

Predictably, Nicholas has no desire to help the same authorities that essentially put him in prison in the first place.  However, he manages to finagle a lucrative deal with his handler, Carol Barrett (a decent Viola Davis) to grant him freedom from prison if he’s successful in aiding her team in capturing the terrorists.  She reluctantly acquiesces and Nicholas is not only reunited with a former college buddy in Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) on the team, but he also gets cozy with Chen's brainy sister, Lien (Wei Tang).  As Nicholas and his team venture all over the globe – from Chicago to L.A. to Hong Kong and finally to Jakarta – they begin to piece together clues as to the real culprits behind the nuclear reactor disaster, but Nicholas faces a whole other slew of obstacles along the way, some of which threaten the very freedom that he was promised in the first place. 

I will say this about Mann: Nobody can shoot locations like he can.  Stunningly photographed by Stuart Dryburgh, BLACKHAT makes virtuoso usage of its real world settings.  The loose, freewheeling, and improvisational camerawork (a Mann aesthetic staple) elegantly frames the natural opulence of the cityscapes and streets that Nicholas and his allies occupy throughout the film.  The opening sequence of the film – showcasing the reactor attack and a visual representation of what it looks like within a computer system when a hacker infiltrates and shuts it down using malware and viruses – is kind of endlessly fascinating for its intricate complexity.  This scene highlights how frightening the whole notion of cyber terrorism is, especially for how nameless and faceless people in hiding can launch such devastatingly effective attacks…with the push of a few buttons.  Visually representing what computer terrorism looks like is inherently challenging, but Mann finds a way to do it justice here. 

Mann is also a maestro when it comes to helming action, and there’s one scene in particular – involving Nicholas suspecting that someone’s tailing him in a restaurant – that explodes into a lyrical and chaotic flurry of violence that only Mann can engineer.  That, and the film’s gun battles have the pulse pounding immediacy and base-heavy oomph factor that really makes you feel like you directly in the line of fire with Nicholas and company.  Mann is as dexterous of a technical cinematic craftsman as they come, and BLACKHAT’S rock steady and assured production values are a consummate reminder of his supreme gifts behind the camera; Mann is simply incapable of making an ugly looking film. 

Having said that, BLACKHAT’s stylistic flourishes don’t favorably compare to the film’s flaccid and prosaic scripting.  It takes an awfully long time for the film to build interest in its subject, and Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl eventually lose the audience’s attention with the manner that the narrative takes some preposterous and frequently laughable detours, which all but drains the film of any level of credible grit and verisimilitude it should have had.  More often than not, BLACKHAT feels like a subpar James Bondian thriller on autopilot, and the screenplay makes some pathetically obvious and telegraphed moves (the whole romance angle between Nicholas and Lien can be seen from a proverbial mile away, and it's predictability matched by the listless chemistry-free pairing of Hemsworth and Tang).  Is it really plausible that two complete strangers – in the middle of a worldwide threat – would fall head over heals for each other within a day of working together?  Lame and ham-invested plot contrivances such as these have no place in a Mann film. 

Insipid scripting aside, Mann misfires big time with Hemsworth as the lead, who seems to barely emote at all with his stilted line readings and hardly draws any attention to himself as a character of rooting interest.  The Nicholas character himself rarely comes off as authentic in the slightest.  Here’s a “computer genius” that looks like a GQ cover model (despite being behind bars for years) and – beyond his intricate knowledge of all things cyber-related – is about as lethal in a fist or gun fight as Rambo.  The other damning problem with this character is that he’s, for the most part, freakin’ unstoppable on all fronts.  There’s no computer/cell phone he can’t crack and no adversary that he can’t mop the floor with as easily as Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills from the TAKEN franchise.  There’s simply no simmering aura of threat in BLACKHAT; I never once doubted that this improbably scripted superman would not make it out on top. 

Then there’s the villain himself, who’s hardly an entity in BLACKHAT at all, and when he reveals himself he’s basically a megalomaniac with world dominating aspirations on pure autopilot (he’s also no physical match for the perpetually brawny Hemsworth, which makes their climatic standoff all the more dull).  I’m really ashamed of BLACKHAT, especially coming from Mann, who has made an acclaimed career of making cold and calculating action thrillers with merciless pacing and a fine attention to character detail.  Yet, everything in BLACKHAT just falls resoundingly flat.  This is a would-be suspenseful and exhilarating thriller with real-world echoes that rarely capitalizes on its premise.  Mann has never made a disposable and banal film.  He has now. 

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