The question is, can master of style over substance Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) overcome the worst movie title this decade as well as make computer hacking gripping and exciting? The answer is – no. So instead he churns out a third-rate Bond movie in his his favourite cop-show format.
Mann’s opening gambit is to visualise the cyber-terrorist attack on a Chinese nuclear power station; going Matrix-like, through the screen, through the code and into the guts of the computer, like an electron-microscope, down the wires and into the micro-processors themselves. It is an intriguing CGI light-show and is, of course, complete B-S.
Cut to American-educated Chinese intelligence officer Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), getting his brief to catch the cyber criminal; who does he need on his team? Hemsworth’s chiselled, ripped and generally bad-ass convicted hacker Hathaway, still hacking phones from his max-sec penitentiary cell.
With US Marshall Jessop (Holt McCallany), FBI hard-case Barrett (Viola Davis), and Chen Dawai’s stunning sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), a computer network engineer (naturally), the team sets off across America, China and Indonesia chasing the Blackhat hacker.
Mann superficially dresses his latest cop adventure in contemporary clothes; the computer code on screen is vaguely real, and Mann assumes the audience has enough intelligence to know what routers and IP addresses are.
However, while Hemsworth pulls a blinder of social engineering to hack the the head of the NSA’s cyber-security division (like you do), he only acheives it by emailing a PDF document containing a key-logger that instantly dials home to China with the guy’s new password.
This and many other hacks and cracks are carried out within mere seconds of the Furrowed Brow of Deep Thought, and not the many weeks of coding, debugging and pizza in a basement usually required. Can’t hang about, Hemsworth and Tang Wei spend half their time in bed. Well, he needs a rest, after a nasty brawl with three Chinese giants; who knew big, buff MIT nerd Hathaway would be such a handy dude in a bar fight? So the super-hacker is also a man of action.
Mann soon loses interest in the cyber-aspect of the plot, the intellectual battle of wits being nowhere near the fun of boy’s toys; helicopters, speedboats, machine guns, rocket-launchers, anti-personnel mines. Blackhat soon descends into running street battles and occasionally blowing stuff up, standard fare of your average Butler/Statham movie with added Michael Mann wobble-cam cinematography. Bourne did it better.
Blackhat’s sidekick is a murderous Lebanese terrorist (safe Western stereotype – check) with a bunch of armed South American henchmen (check) who take out half the team.
In Act three, the unseen Blackhat is briefly revealed as a beardy South African (another safe Nationality to tarnish – check), a sort of third-rate Bond villain in a Hawaiian shirt. By which time, we long since stopped caring.
With Blackhat, Michael Mann slumps to Ridley Scott levels of late-career disappointment. While nowhere near as crass and gratuitous as the appalling cyber-terrorism garbage Swordfish, Blackhat goes wrong from the start and just gets wronger.
Much as I love Mann’s early and middle-period work – Manhunter and Heat – this is a stylish but absurd turkey. Action-man of the moment Hemsworth, whom I like very much, having worked on three of his movies, is so ridiculously miscast I can’t get past it. This generic action-lead role could be any actor from Butler to Ben Affleck, from Chris Pine to Timberlake.
The tone of the whole thing is like a bog-standard Wesley snipes espionage ‘thriller’ from circa 2005. From this director and this cast, that’s just not good enough. RC
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Morgan Davis Foehl, Michael Mann
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz
Running Time: 124 minutes
Related: Review: A Most Wanted Man (2014)