January 15, 2015


How do you expect me to hack into
their system without my hammer?

Grade: C +
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom and John Ortiz
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr. 13 min.

You can’t technically refer to Blackhat as Michael Mann pastiche because Mann is its director. But this cyber-thriller—booted from its initial awards-season release date to the January junkyard—runs the gambit of Mann tropes: copious close-ups; reflective lighting; night time cinematography; motorboats powering against a cityscape backdrop; and, of course, a signature, protracted firefight (sans soundtrack, of course).

But even this stylistic revue can’t overcome Thor in front of a laptop. Or Viola Davis wearing a bad weave. Or a hacker villain making a dry run at cleaning up on soybean and tin futures by triggering a nuclear meltdown in Asia. From Mann’s (first) tracking shot along a microchip’s circuitry to a shot from the underside of a computer keyboard, it’s the venerable filmmaker who exhibits the tin ear and eye.

Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), a higher-up in the Chinese military, recognizes the malware used to cause the near-meltdown as containing the same computer code written by Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), Chen’s old MIT roommate. But Hathaway is serving a 15-year prison sentence for cyber-crimes, so Chen leans on FBI agent Carol Barrett (Davis, even her best not good enough here) and her agency minders to furlough his ex-roomie to help him and Chen’s sister Lien (Tang Wei (Lust, Caution), a network engineer, track down the “blackhat.”

No filmmaker does cops and robbers as well as Michael Mann. And from NSA surveillance to cyber-terrorism, there’s a wealth of zeitgeist behind a search that spans Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta, with a brief layover in rural Malaysia. The journey also lands Hathaway and Lein in bed through the most cursory of courtships, perhaps prompted by their mutual struggles with American accents.

But the revolving locales and Mann’s aesthetic surfeit smother any space for story and character development. In one scene, Lien dons a white dinner dress, then buys some coffee from a vendor, then pours the coffee on some papers she’s carrying, then takes a long cab ride holding the wet papers out the window to dry. Wondering why she’s doing this quickly becomes to secondary to wondering why we should care.

Giving Mann the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he recognizes the need to deploy every weapon in his auteur’s arsenal to buttress the one-note acting and Morgan Davis Foehl’s second-rate script. But Blackhat is methadone for Michael Mann addicts: it’ll make you feel content for a while, but it’s not like the real thing.

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