Director Michael Mann’s new cyber thriller Blackhat couldn’t have opened at a more fortuitous time given the recent hacking of Sony Pictures. It follows convicted hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) who gets furloughed from prison to help the FBI (Viola Davis plays the task force’s lead agent, Barrett) and the Chinese authorities track down a master hacker targeting both countries.
Hathaway will only win his freedom if their globe-trotting mission succeeds. Complicating matters is the fact that his Chinese liaison, Captain Chen Dawai (Wang Lehom), also so happens to be his college roommate and best friend, and whose hot network engineer sister Lien (Tang Wei) subsequently becomes Hathaway’s lover.
If there’s one thing that Blackhat demonstrates it’s that Michael Mann has nothing left to say.
I’ve been a fan of Mann’s for years — going all the way back to his tenure as exec producer on the Miami Vice TV series — and have been an apologist for his last couple of divisive movies, but if he’s simply going to continue to regurgitate the same old cop-and-criminal tropes from so many of his past films then maybe it’s time he hung up his guns.
In Blackhat, Mann recycles the same narrative and thematic elements he’s trafficked in since The Jericho Mile. He cannibalizes from his own filmography here with some shots and sequences right out of Miami Vice, Heat, and even a bit of Collateral. And if you didn’t like the handheld digital cinematography of Miami Vice or Public Enemies then you’ll hate the way Blackhat looks. I’m convinced if Mann made Heat now he would shoot it to look like L.A. Takedown, his TV movie that inspired it, and not like Heat. I miss the director who gave us the wonderful-looking Last of the Mohicans and Heat. I can only assume Mann just wants to shoot fast and loose so he’s settled for his movies looking like party videos captured on a phone.
But ultimately most of Blackhat’s problems are on paper. All of its characters are ciphers. I’ve seen LinkedIn profiles with more dimension. Indeed, Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl seem more interested in people who are job descriptions or titles rather than human beings. These are functionaries not characters.
It was already difficult to buy the strapping, handsome Hemsworth as a master hacker, but his tough guy banter (with some sort of Chicago accent) and prison-hardened ways feel too “movie-ish” for a film striving to embrace realism. Speaking of prison, I’m convinced Michael Mann’s great unrealized dream in life is that he never did hard time. He’s fascinated with the psychological discipline (or damage) of convicts. But Mann’s become like one of his own ex-con characters: he can’t leave The Life behind and adjust to the “real” world.
As in his Miami Vice movie, the protagonists’ arbitrary love affair becomes a dramatic focus even though it’s the least developed or interesting part of a movie about international crime. But then when the bad guy traffics in the dangerous world of soy commodities speculation … seriously, the stakes in this movie are pretty dramatically and visually inert for a film that begins with a hack attack on a nuclear reactor. The villain of Quantum of Solace had a better scheme. This bad guy’s plan is the kind that actually gets you kicked out of groups like SPECTRE.
Captain Chen Dawai is more interesting than Hathaway because he’s someone who has walked in two worlds if you will, and you can’t help but wonder what Blackhat would’ve been like had he’d been the main protagonist instead. The amount of filming done in China and the overly flattering portrayal of their military and police basically screams “Chinese investment.” It’s as obvious and pandering as Transformers: Age of Extinction in that regard.
For a movie about such a high-profile and damaging form of crime, Blackhat has nothing to say about hacking. Is being a hacker bad? They seem like a necessary evil here. (Hathaway only hacked banks and not people so he’s a “good” hacker.) The coverage of the Sony hack and its subsequent leaks provided more drama and understanding of the perils of hackers and cyber terrorism than anything Blackhat musters.