As focused as the blurred, often random moments of unsteady steadicam shots and as coherent as co-star Wei Tang’s indecipherable Chinese accent, Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” is a classic January fire sale thriller.
Mann’s worst film since he transitioned into the pantheon of “major directors,” the best reason Universal had for rolling it out at all must have been some misguided attempt to pander its way into Chinese favor. Is there a theme park deal we haven’t heard about that was at stake here?
A hacking thriller starring Chris “Thor” Hemsworth, it would seem can’t-miss, just from its timing. The villains might not be North Koreans, but that’s not obvious as we see a Chinese nuclear power plant cyber-hijacked into a near meltdown, and the U.S. commodities market manipulated to a near crash.
Somebody’s behind both incidents. The lone Chinese investigator, Capt. Chen (Leehom Wang) insists that the U.S. Justice Dept. get his former M.I.T. roommate (Hemsworth) out of prison to help crack the case. Hathaway co-authored the RAT (remote access tool) code that compromised the targets and now threatens world stability.
Viola Davis, the movies’ Queen of No-Nonsense, is the F.B.I. agent in charge of the ankle-braceleted Hathaway, someone trying to give the Chinese just enough cooperation to crack the case. Anything more, it is NOT said, would compromise national security. Because the Chinese have massive hacking efforts all their own.
Chen has a willowy, computer-savvy sister (Wei Tang) and she falls, hard, for the chiseled, buff convict hacker with a lock of hair always draped over one eye. Even that fails to generate friction in Mann’s movie, a film where the villains are unseen for the first hour, and seem designed by a political correctness committee when they do arrive.
The Chinese are all stoic cops or intrepid investigators, with Hathaway the lone American who has a clue about what’s happening, and why. Mann makes tension-killing mistakes dating back to his “Miami Vice” days — wasting long sections of screen time on people traveling by car, boat, helicopter or private plane, losing himself in dialogue as banal as “Cash money doesn’t have a trail,” lines he cares so little about he lets his actors swallow the last words, adding to the sense of missing information.
It’s not that “Blackhat” is hard to follow. The extreme close-ups of computer info traveling down circuits, brooding shots of Hemsworth thinking, sometimes with his shirt off, the shoot-outs where agents with pistols out-shoot bad guys with automatic weapons, tell us enough. And if you’ve ever wondered what a keyboard looks like, inside, looking up at the keys as they’re struck, this is the movie for you.
Davis has little to do, the Chinese players are set-dressing and Hemsworth isn’t much without his hammer.
Maybe that theme park deal will materialize, and Mann taking one and making one for the team will pay off. Otherwise, “Blackhat” will serve no purpose other than deflating the “Heat” director’s reputation and the star’s chances of ever starring in anything that doesn’t involve a helmet with horns on it.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang
Credits: Directed by Michael Mann, screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl. A Universal release.
Running time: 2:13