Michael Mann’s Blackhat is a mess. It’s a slick, shallow effort from a filmmaker who usually does better — a lot better. Even when he falters (Ali, Public Enemies), he does so with style and panache. It’s the same story here, though without much else to recommend it. What we end up with a movie that’s all flash and no legitimate substance. How a story about hackers can be so hackneyed is just one of its many problems. Bad casting, an indecipherable editing approach, and more than a few loose ends turn what should have been a terrific international thriller into an endless excuse into digital camera confusion.
Mann’s penchant for new technology is front and center in this often mystifying tale of cyberattacks. One regards a Chinese nuclear power plant. The other is the soy futures market. All improbable paths lead to Nicolas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a computer whiz skilled at illegal acts serving 12 years for… well, for being a computer whiz skilled at illegal acts. Since there are similarities between him and the current hacker causing this chaos, he is sprung from prison by a Chinese official (Leehom Wang), given a gal pal (Tang Wei) and a no-nonsense boss (Viola Davis) whose not sure which side her tech-savvy ex-con is on.
Proxies, servers, and other techno-babble gets spewed while Hemsworth trots the globe avoiding chemistry with his script mandated love interest. We get shots straight out of Tron (Mann loves to go deep inside his computers to argue that all the world’s a motherboard) with a narrative overflowing with obvious red herrings. By the time Nick goes from coding dork to super spy, we’ve stopped caring. Instead, we are left wondering how an idea so stuffed with potential could have been mangled so badly, especially by someone like Michael Mann.
But the script is the problem here, a Hackers for Dummies given contemporary gravitas by the constant references to China and terrorism. With the recent events surrounding North Korea, The Interview, and Sony, one could easily understand the connection, but Blackhat doesn’t do enough with the idea. Instead, the whole cybercrime element is a gimmick, a way of getting a sullen anti-hero out of his current predicament and back into his element while bringing a bunch of clueless, exposition-enabling cohorts along for the ride. While neon lights fizzle and wet metropolitan streets suggest noir, Mann instead opts for a Danny Boyle-by-way-of-GoPro cinematography, distancing us even further from the action.
And here’s the rub — Mann doesn’t need shaky-cam antics to win us over. His brilliant take on the 60 Minutes/Big Tobacco case, The Insider, crackles with tension and there’s nary a rapid fire quick cut to be found. Instead, in the 2014 update of a similar tale, he just wants to play with his toys and plans on taking all unsuspecting viewers along with him. While not as bad as many of the flawed found footage entries which seem to make their way into Cineplexes with startling regularity, Blackhat is downright unwatchable at times. It’s as if part of the motion picture prestidigitation practiced here comes from keeping the audience in the dark — literally.
In essence, Blackhat is a timely idea poorly executed by someone who usually excels at this kind of thing. It is miscast, misunderstands its material, and makes no bones about indulging its director’s whims in deference to the demands of its audience or the genre its pretending to be. There was a time when Michael Mann was considered the cutting edge of post-modern moviemaking. Now, he’s nothing more than Ridley Scott, a once mighty auteur constantly undermining his previous aesthetic reputation. How sad.