Review: “Blackhat”

Michael Mann’s latest big screen directorial effort, Blackhat, has all of the visual style that helped make his previous crime thriller hits Heat and Collateral such memorable and enjoyable films.

Unfortunately, one thing it does not share with those previous films is their relative plot coherence. In fact, Blackhat is maddeningly difficult to follow, and not because the nature of the crime and the criminals it depicts are, by definition, complex and labyrinthine. Rather, it’s the astoundingly uneven performances turned in by an all-star international cast that assure the film will wear out the patience of even the most patient of crime drama and procedural fans and Mann devotees.

In other words, even folks who attempt to defend Mann’s big screen version of Miami Vice should be at a loss to make excuses for this one.

See if you can follow this: After a catastrophic meltdown at Hong Kong’s massive Chai Wan nuclear plant is attributed to the plant’s cooling systems being hacked from an outside source, a captain in China’s military cyberdefense unit, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) is tasked by his government with finding and stopping the “blackhat” hacker responsible. Within days of the Chai Wan meltdown, a manipulation of soy futures on Chicago’s Mercantile Trade Exchange is also attributed to a cyberattack, and as Chen soon discovers, the two incidents have something else in common: they were both enabled by the same RAT (Remote Access Tool) binary code that opened a “back door” into the hacked systems, allowing the blackhat to go about perpetrating his mayhem.

Veteran FBI cybercrime investigator Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) gets her superiors to reluctantly agree to partnering up with Chen and his investigation in order to jointly track down the attackers, but right from the get-go Chen makes an unusual demand: that one Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a blackhat hacker himself serving a 15-year federal prison sentence, be immediately furloughed in order to aid the investigation. Why Hathaway? Because he and Chen years before had been roommates at MIT and were the ones who originally authored the RAT tool code, as well as portions of the accompanying code that has done all the damage thus far. Hathaway was the lead author of the code; thus, his expertise would be critical to any effort to track the current threat and possibly anticipate what his next target might be.

So then a very unusual team is formed out of necessity: Chen, Hathaway, Barrett, Hathaway’s U.S. Marshal babysitter Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany), and Chen’s younger sister Lien (Tang Wei), a skilled network engineer. Together, they set out on a chase that will lead them through stakeouts and fistfights in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, running gun battles in the streets of Hong Kong, hunting for clues in the irradiated remains of the Chai Wan plant’s control center, and into Jakarta, the heart of Indonesia, all to stop the blackhat from striking his next target, whatever it may be.

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Thematically, Blackhat shares with Mann’s other crime thrillers (including Miami Vice) the exploration of a criminal world that exists almost entirely below the surface of what most people consider to be everyday reality. The “cyberworld”, and those of its denizens who unscrupulously have begun to exploit just how much it extends into our lives financially, socially, politically, and psychologically, are certainly a great topical choice for Mann to use as a playground for storytelling, as stories of hacks into the systems of megacorporations and even governments continue to become more and more prevalent in today’s headlines. But for all the media’s coverage of cyber crime, it continues to be a shadowy realm that’s truly understood by a precious few. The cyberworld truly is everywhere: it touches all of our lives through our interconnected technologies, and yet most people know little to nothing about how that interconnectedness can harm us. Scary stuff.

And as stated earlier, Blackhat also shares with Mann’s other work some truly breathtaking visuals, as the director and his director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) make the most of the many exotic locales in Asia the film uses as settings. Koreatown, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Jakarta are all given distinct life, breath, and character through both street-level and aerial photography, all of it digital (a first for a Mann film), and the breadth of all those destinations and how they’re all connected to one another in the hacker’s plot helps to reinforce the theme of just how small and connected the world has become.

But all those high-concept topical themes and all that visual style can’t save a film that’s just not very well cast, and unfortunately, that problem starts and ends with Hemsworth. It would be one thing if Mann and the film’s producers had perhaps written into the script a way for Hemsworth to retain his native Australian accent — then perhaps some of the pressure to deliver difficult lines in a convincing and compelling way might have been alleviated. But instead, the once-and-future Marvel Studios God of Thunder mumbles his way through the film attempting what sounds occasionally like Brooklynese, a few times like Boston Southie, and most of the time like nothing even remotely natural to him. With a script leaden with techno jargon and a plot made all the more complex by the complexity of the crimes it depicts, the last thing a film like this needs is something else to potentially give audiences reasons to throw up their hands and say, “Wait, what just happened? Oh, never mind, I give up.” Odd and inconsistent inflections go a long way toward delivering the killing blow to an audience’s suspension of disbelief and attention span, Mr. Hemsworth — just ask Kevin Costner about his hilarious attempt at an English accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and its effect on the movie’s credibility. He still hasn’t lived that down.

If that problem weren’t enough to usher this film toward ignominy, add to it the film’s obligatory-feeling romantic subplot, and his utter lack of chemistry with his female lead and love interest. Chinese actress Tang Wei (2007’s Lust, Caution), who delivers her English lines with just enough of an accent to be troublesome, through no fault of her own generates about as much on-screen heat with Hemsworth as she does with a lamppost. Their scenes together are no small part of the film, either; thus, you have a significant portion of the film that’s not only difficult to comprehend aurally, but also wholly impossible to suspend one’s disbelief for.

And don’t expect the other members of the cast to save things, either, because they’re not given nearly enough to do to counterbalance what isn’t working. That’s especially a shame given that Mann has Davis to work with, one of the most talented and versatile performers working in film and TV today. Arguably, she should have been the one carrying this whole affair, rather than Hemsworth. Yes, then the film would not have had the marketing benefit of People’s most recent ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ at the top of the film’s credits, but then maybe the film would have been actually coherent.

Maybe.

Score: 2 out of 5

Blackhat
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom. Directed by Michael Mann.
Running Time: 132 minutes
Rated R for violence and some language.