Blackhat (2015) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for violence and some language
Running Time: 133 min.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, John Ortiz, Andy On
Small role: William Mapother
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Morgan Davis Foehl

Review published January 17, 2015

The normally surefire Michael Mann (Public Enemies, Miami Vice) delivers quite a fizzler with Blackhat, which intrigues with a topical subject (cyberterrorism) and engaging actors, but at no time does it generate any excitement or suspense.  It still has Mann's sense of sleek and cool aesthetic, and his beautifully shot compositions, but none of that can make up for the fact that the story isn't intriguing and these characters are without much semblance of depth.

Blackhat stars Chris Hemsworth (Thor: The Dark World, Rush), in an American accent, playing Nick Hathaway, a cybercriminal doing a lengthy prison stint who is sprung in order to help the Feds, led by agent Carol Barrett (Davis, Get On Up), with cracking a major case of cyber terrorism that resulted in a Chinese nuclear reactor explosion.  Hathaway's work provides the backbone of the code used to cause massive destruction, and the thinking is that he's the only one with the know-how to figure out the culprits and take them down, which he is doing in order to not serve the remainder of his nine years left.

Directors, even ones as experienced as Mann, are often stymied by how to present thrillers involving people sitting at a computer with excitement.  Often times, they go too far, as in the case of The Fifth Estate, and push forward fantasy metaphors of fire and destruction to show just how much damage a hacker can do to vital data.  In Blackhat, Mann tries to show the data path through a series of lit-up computer components that showcase the packet of code as it travels through the various systems, then a cacophony of strobe effects to simulate something akin to a brute force or denial of service attack.  I suppose for those who don't understand computers, such blatant feeding may seem necessary, but in this day and age where just about everyone with a computer has experience, or at least has heard of, malware, phishing, and other forms of hacking, it will come off as what it is -- cheap and superfluous gimmickry to try to make something visually exciting.  A below-the-keys shot of a keyboard to simulate key logging is equally unnecessary.

The trouble is not the visuals, it's the lack of build-up in order to get us on board.  We see the destruction, but for long stretches, we don't know the angle of who is behind it, and we don't really grasp how the so-called good guys are able to trace these cyberterrorists down through some very rudimentary means.  Though the film is mostly about people using technology to play cat and mouse, Mann shoehorns in several scenes of brawls (somehow, Nick is not only a prodigy with electronic devices, but is also a UFC-caliber brawler) and shootouts that don't have a great deal of bearing to the main story at large.  The same can be said of the inclusion of a female love interest, Lien (Tang, Lust Caution), sister of Hathaway's old college friend Dawai (Wang, China Strike Force).  Wouldn't it be refreshing to have an a female in the cast with a hunky lead actor who isn't obviously going to go to bed with him at the first available opportunity?

Though it all looks good, Blackhat is so dull and plodding, especially at 2 hours and 13 minutes in length, that you'll likely spend a good deal of time checking your watch or itching to see if you received a text, just to keep your mind engaged (I can attest that many in the screening I attended had no qualms about whipping their cell phones out for mental stimulation throughout).  As it is neither a realistic look at the world of cyber security, nor is it saying much of anything about the globally relevant topic above and beyond some standard thriller aspects, Blackhat is a real missed opportunity for Michael Mann to come back after nearly six years since his last feature film.  If it's just going to be escapist fare, we should at least expect we'll be leaving our worries of the day aside, instead of counting the minutes until we can return right back to them.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo