“Piss off and die ghostman.”
There are two movies vying for supremacy in Michael Mann’s Blackhat. One is the type of movie Mann usually excels at: the story of a mostly solitary, always cool and collected criminal who suddenly finds himself in a situation where things are spiraling out of his control. The other is some silly nonsense about hackers, soy futures and clumsy computer jargon that would be right at home in those clunky 90’s thrillers like The Net, Hackers or Virtuosity.
Chris Hemsworth is Hathaway, that type of cool, collected criminal Mann loves. And even though he’s more or less a thug who broods and is an expert at brutally murdering people, he’s also apparently one of the best hackers on planet Earth. When a blackhat hacker hacks into a nuclear power plant’s system and causes an explosion, Hathaway is sprung from prison to help assist in the investigation. He’s aided by his old college roommate Chen (Leehom Wang), Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang) who is also an expert on computers and totally has the hots for Hathaway, and FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis).
Blackhat is sort of a cyber terrorism take on James Bond films, as Hathaway and co. hop from country to country tracking down mysterious bad guys who keep pulling off cyber crimes. Besides causing the explosion at the beginning, the bad guys also hack into the stock market and run up the price on Soy Futures, which makes Blackhat the first and only film to ever use people trading Soy Futures a dramatic action piece. Who are these mysterious blackhat hackers causing all this computer mayhem? The film doesn’t really care, at all. They’re nameless thugs who carry around rocket launchers and freely engage in big shootouts on crowded streets. We never even see them use a computer, as a matter of fact.
As expert hacker Hathaway, Hemsworth is beyond wooden. His flat, monotone American accent keeps slipping, and while Hemsworth is essentially channeling Robert De Niro in Mann’s Heat, he conveys none of the internal complexity that De Niro was so expertly able to achieve. As for the hacking aspect, Hathaway’s skills don’t really seem to matter much. He uses a computer maybe three times in the film, and when he does he’s just typing really fast. I’m not saying I wanted Blackhat to be two hours of people writing codes, but the computer and hacking aspect has so little to do with the film that it gets to a point where it doesn’t matter at all. Why is such a big deal made about Hathaway being a master hacker when, in the end, he resolves all his conflicts by brutally stabbing people in the face or shooting them in a heavily crowded location?
Mann clearly has no interest in the hacking stuff, which begs the question: why did he feel the need to even make this movie? It’s not like a new Michael Mann movie is something that happens every year, so Blackhat feels extra frustrating because its essentially wasting Mann’s talent. As for that talent, it’s almost bizarrely vacant from Blackhat. Mann can be a truly fantastic director, but in the last few years his films have been on a bit of a decline. I’d say Collateral was his last really good film, and that was 11 years ago. But even in Mann’s lesser recent films like Miami Vice and Public Enemies there was still a glimmer of his skill buried under all the nonsense. Blackhat, in contrast, doesn’t even feel like a Michael Mann movie. There are a smattering of shots here and there that ape Mann’s usual visual style, complete with cold blue filters to match. But the majority of the film has no real distinct style to call its own. Scenes linger for far too long, with characters spitting out utterly ridiculous dialogue and then the camera staying on them long after they’ve stopped talking, creating an uncomfortable silence. People spit out computer jargon, with clearly no grasp of what they’re saying. One phrase that stood out repeatedly was “memory dump.” It’s always hard to make using a computer cinematic, but Mann goes about it in really cheap, lazy ways with the camera zooming through the innards of computers like they were heavily trafficked highways, or having characters slam on the keyboard keys with furious gusto.
The few times the film picks up involve bursts of violence, which is something Mann can do in his sleep at this point. There are realistic shootouts, and there are some scenes where the violence is shockingly graphic. It packs a punch, but it also begs the question: why is it in this movie? What does this have to do with hackers, or Soy Futures, or later plot developments involving buying stock commodities in tin (yes, what could be a more thrilling plot-point than TIN FUTURES?). But the biggest sin Blackhat commits is that it’s so painfully boring. The film clocks in at over 2 hours, and as certain scenes find our characters essentially lay around in beds not even talking, you can’t help but think: “Hey, could they have cut this bit to save some time?”
Almost all of the actors fail to connect with the material. As already mentioned, Hemsworth is flat and lifeless; even when he’s stabbing someone in the face he seems bored. It’s refreshing to see such a strong female character with Wei Tang as Lien, who seems even smarter than Hathaway and has almost as big a part in the film as he does. But Tang clearly has some trouble with the language barrier, and she and Hemsworth have absolutely no chemistry together, which is a shame because the film requires them to fall in love and hop in the sack together almost instantly. But Tang definitely has a natural charisma that Hemsworth seems to be lacking, making me wish the entire film had been about her character. The only really interesting performance and character is Viola Davis, as Barrett. Davis is a great actress, so she’s able to make clunky, silly lines sound almost natural, and she carries a weariness that makes her character seem like a real human being instead of a walking cliche as most of the characters here.
If any other filmmaker had directed Blackhat, its cinema sins would probably be forgivable, and you could just write this off as another soulless Hollywood action flick. But I’m convinced Michael Mann still has great work in him, and it’s not time to write him off yet. But an utter misfire like Blackhat makes it very hard to keep enthusiasm for Mann up. In the end, it would’ve been better for everyone if we could all just dump Blackhat from our memory.