Blackhat is Michael Mann’s latest and I won’t bury the lede here—it’s just not very good. It’s the kind of not very good that keeps Mann apologists like myself awake at night. The 71-year-old director is a master technician and mood setter, a great builder of tension and a genius at hiding large, existential thorns within the soft, chewy center of a genre flick. All the cogs and uh, “Mannerisms” are there for Blackhat to be a success. What went wrong?
The movie stars Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway, a talented computer hacker furloughed from prison to help hunt a master cyber-attacker (our titular “blackhat”) who seems to have no political or financial motivation. Hathaway is sprung by old friend, and current Chinese official, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) because Hathaway is the “only man” who can stop this baddie who is suddenly blowing up Chinese nuclear sites and inflating stock prices in Chicago with a couple keystrokes and a trusty Dell.
Hemsworth is capable enough. He smolders, runs, shoots, stabs, tosses one-liners and beds his friend’s sister (Wei Tang) mere days after jumping the big house like any great antihero would. Alas, he’s no match for a script that sets him up as a static, muscle-bound post-grad without a compelling past. I wanted James Caan to jump out of nowhere, push Thor aside to furiously type code on one of the movie’s many keyboards. All this while drinking a pretty damn good Scotch and telling Tuesday Weld everything was going to work out. No such luck.
If you’re wondering where the authorities are in this multi-national crime spree, Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) of the FBI is along for the sky miles-inflating ride. Davis’ talents are wildly underserved here, though moments before her demise we learn her husband died during 9/11. If that seems like a loaded detail, then you should write screenplays. Does this slapdash delivered fact motivate her to stop bad guys? Does she see these cyber-attacks as a new kind of terrorism? Is she at all concerned that Hathaway, despite having some sort of shady tactical training in the past, is still a civilian unequipped to pull of this kind of operation? The bullets come a-flyin’ and we’ll never know.
Mann is anything if not a master of the final act—for a Hollywood that top-loads with concept but can’t deliver the goods, that’s no small shakes. Go back and re-watch Heat’s denouement on the tarmac, Thief’s shootout in the suburbs of Chicago, Manhunter’s frantic crash through a kitchen window. These are brilliantly staged, logical and fated climaxes. In its own way, Blackhat is no different. The too-many moving parts and clunky dialogue of the film’s first two-thirds suddenly slough off after a shocking car-bomb blast. From there, we are left with only four principles (give or take a few thugs) some magazines and a sharpened screwdriver. Interestingly, the pace during the last section in Jakarta actually slows and Blackhat becomes more tidy, forceful and focused than it’s been up to that point. It almost made up for the flabby script and my wildly stretched suspension of disbelief. Almost.