I’m a Michael Mann apologist. I rate Public Enemies, and I’ll even say good things about his big screen Miami Vice. With Blackhat, though, it’s as if he’s distilled all the familiar obsessions of his oeuvre (cops and criminals, men doing what men do in an unflinchingly masculine manner) and, bereft of coherent structure to support this, be it through sheer bravura style or winning performances, has been left floundering foolishly for all to see, in the most unflattering light possible. Blackhat is a ridiculous movie, one that could even be used to retrospectively mock those running themes and obsessions as they appear in his classics.
Because it isn’t as if Mann’s self-spun scripts are dazzlingly complex when it comes down to it. Heat could easily end up a forgettable L.A. Takedown TV movie without its director’s visual and aural majesty and the riveting performances. Mann plays cops and robbers in the most captivating and immersive style. In Blackhat he’s also playing cops and robbers, but he’s out of his comfort zone in applying them to the milieu of cybercrime and warfare. Worse, he ends up looking like and out-of-touch old man struggling to grasp hold of some kind of relevance in a world that increasingly mystifies him. If you add to that some bafflingly ugly and aggressively aesthetically displeasing choices in digital photography, you have a picture that has no problem in resting at the bottom of his cinematic pile.
It isn’t a complete stinker. There are a couple of decent shootouts, even if there’s no plausible good reason that they should be even there; the climax, as utterly ludicrous as it is, is at least dynamic, and there’s still something of the Mann ambient veneer to keep one occupied, courtesy of Harry Gregson-Williams and Atticus Ross’ score (with Ryan Amon pieces from Elysium used too). Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is mostly poop, though, presumably intentionally so when you compare it to his gorgeous work on the (otherwise redundant) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty remake.
But you expect a liberal dose of the meticulous from Mann amid his hyperrealism. Here, it’s as if he’s stumbled upon a plotline (the screenplay is courtesy of Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl) by way of a desire to insert a host of topics that have been weighing heavily on his mind. So we get nuclear catastrophes (caused by a hacker), cybercrime, with a Chinese angle by having the FBI work with their authorities (meaning China can’t be accused of perpetrating anything on this occasion) and the all-seeing eyes of the NSA (but here our hero hacks into the NSA, not the other way round; take that Big Brother!)
The mechanism by which he inflicts this upon us is to have Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, all blond locks and immaculately shiny chest; Thor, basically), a convicted computer hacker, released from the clink in order to help his old MIT buddy and Chinese Cyber Crime officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) track down the perpetrator of an attack on a Hong Kong nuclear facility. You see, Hathaway and Chen designed the original code of the RAT (Remote Access Tool) employed to accomplish the hack. Hathaway’s no fat, greasy cyber nerd, though (it would have been fantastic if Mann had gone that route, but he deals with worlds of real men doing really manly things; I doubt emptying one’s keyboard of crisps and spilling a litre of Coke over the portable hard drive would have appealed to him).
No, he’s super-buff, the kind of guy who can more than take care of himself, and who treats prison time like going to college. He’s better than the cops, basically. And he’s got principals too. Like Robin Hood. He only steals from the banks, since the average Joe won’t get hurt that way (the last seven years tell a different story, unfortunately, since you can’t transpose all your principles from the Old West).
So super-buff Hathaway gets investigating, and along the way falls for Chen’s sister Lien (Tang Wei, cute but forgettable; she serves the same arm candy function as Gong Li in Miami Vice, except that relationship at least had a semblance of passion; this is strictly perfunctory, and there’s zero chemistry between the leads). This leads to laborious lulls in which Hathaway says manly things, and even a moment on a helicopter, en route for some nuclear action, when Hathaway and Chen discuss sis, asking what kind of life nine more years of prison would be (as if she’d wait that long, what does he thinks she’s stupid, waiting for fat grease ball Nick all that time?)
There are also a FBI agent Viola Davis (whose character is able to engineer a 9/11 reference in the clumsiest of fashions, but that’s how relevant Mann is in this movie) and Deputy US Marshall Holt McCallany, who inevitably surf a route from despising Hathaway to respecting his skilled ways.
For a picture ostensibly concerning cybercrime, there’s precious little talk or action of that nature in the mix. Just as well, since Mann’s idea of visualising the throes technology is flying around microcircuits and putting the camera under virtual keyboards like he’s a dysfunctional David Fincher. At several points Hathaway proves his savvy in scenes that have already been roundly (and justifiably) ridiculed; he resets the timer on the marshal’s phone so he can’t trace Hathaway’s ankle bracelet. He also knows what an Android is and can use it to track Wi-Fi cos he’s a ruddy genius.
Apart from that, Nick’s deductions are of the sort that a cop should be making, and his heroics are too (Mann contrives that Nick has to go into the highly radioactive nuclear facility in order to remove a data drive; Nick’s so manly that, while others succumb to the fumes, he emerges with ne’er any radiation sickness and only a case of cancer brewing in another ten years or so; if nothing else, Mann’s incredibly flippant and irresponsible in his treatment of the cons of nuclear industry; this might as well be last year’s Godzilla for all the realism on display)*.
Most bizarrely, or perhaps not as its that kind of internally batty movie, the nuclear attack serves no grand plan. It’s just a means to test out the RAT for the hacker’s big score, making money from trading tin futures (see, Mann can even get the financial crisis in there, just about). Fortunately, Hathaway knows how to hack away and foils the villain’s scheme, leading to some stabbings and shootings involving the hacker (Yorick van Wageningen; as soon as he appears – alas, right near the end – the picture musters some semblance of interest, he’s that kind of performer, but it’s too little too late) and his henchman (Ritchie Coster, playing a completely different kind of bad guy in season two of True Detective).
The climax is entirely serviceable; in another movie, with other actors, it would be suitably rousing. But Hathaway’s such an incorrigible badass geek, the result is rather silly, and the gunfire in a crowded place goes one step beyond the Collateral nightclub shootout into pure WTF? territory.
In the hands of someone from whom we expect this kind of brain-dead plotting and indifferent performing (Hemsworth is entirely bland, although I’m not blaming him necessarily), say a Michael Bay, Blackhat would be to be of expectedly bargain-basement quality. Hell, take it down a notch. This is the kind of consummate daftness whereby you could see Van Damme in his prime playing Hathaway, such is the non-existent grip on anything approaching realism or believability. That feeling is added to by the cheap and nasty texture elicited by Mann, undermining the tranche of locations visited (US, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia).
Blackhat was originally called the even more underwhelming Cyber, a fair indication of just how rote and inessential this is. But has there been a decent hacker movie since War Games? I doubt that there’ll be another vying for attention in the aftermath of Blackhat, or any time soon, since it was a box office disaster (Legendary took a $90m write-down, so it’s just as well Jurassic World was round the corner).
*Addendum 9/10/22: This is, of course, if you take the nuclear rulebook literally. Caution is advised in following such a course. Perhaps Mann knows something most don’t and isn’t remotely concerned for his hero’s wellbeing.**
**Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).