Director Michael Mann has made some of the greatest films ever about crime – whether it be street-level (Thief), high-stakes (Heat), macabre (Manhunter) or corporate (The Insider). So it seems like a natural fit for the man behind all those muscular, highly cinematic movies to take on the subjects of cyber-terrorism, hacking and digital security – subjects that couldn’t be more relevant and hard-hitting. But it is my unfortunate duty to report that Mann’s new film, Blackhat, is almost a complete disaster, with poor choices made across the board in the way it was filmed, cast and constructed. It stands as the worst film Mann has made since his second, The Keep, and continues a downward trend that started with its abysmal predecessor, 2009’s Public Enemies.
How does Blackhat go so wrong, so fast? For starters, Mann seems to have been defeated by the same obstacle that has brought down just about every other filmmaker who has tackled this subject: it just doesn’t seem possible to make an exciting, compelling movie about people who sit at computers all day (that’s why you shouldn’t hold your breath for a major motion picture about film bloggers, either). Even using the clichéd approach of showing us how a command from a hacker can speed through the innards of a security system (Mann’s opening gambit), you’re still just looking at dots of light flickering across circuit boards. But ironically, that initial imagery might be the most exciting thing about the entire picture.
Chris Hemsworth puts down Mjolnir for a minute to star as Nick Hathaway, an impossibly handsome and fit hacker who’s serving time for his own cyber-crimes. But he is temporarily furloughed when an unknown hacker sets off both an explosion at a nuclear reactor in China and fools around with the American commodities exchange. It seems that Hathaway wrote the initial version of the code that the hacker is using, and the Chinese investigator on the case, Chen (Leehom Wang) happens to be Hathaway’s old roommate from MIT. With the help of the FBI agent also assigned to the investigation (Viola Davis), Chen gets Hathaway a spot on the joint Chinese-U.S. task force as they race to stop the cyber-terrorist before he strikes again.
Blackhat’s problems start with its characters. Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl spend almost no time giving them any sort of life outside of their assigned jobs, and all they end up doing is firing off exposition at each other. Hemsworth seems barely able to muster up any energy in his role, and you and I have more chemistry than him and Lien (Wei Tang), Chen’s sister who begins one of the most contrived and artificial screen romances in history with our strapping hero. No one else on the team makes much of an impression except Davis, who always manages to make even the dullest line sound like something you need to know – although Mann and Foehl later deploy a cheap 9/11 reference to give her Agent Barrett the illusion of depth.
As we follow the squad around the globe from China to Los Angeles to Indonesia, two things become apparent: first, that the plot hardly holds together from one sequence to the next, and is often teetering on incoherence; and second, that Mann’s preferences when it comes to digital cinematography – which started way back with Collateral – have utterly failed him again. It was bad enough shooting the period piece Public Enemies in hi-def video for a jarring clash between subject matter and mise-en-scène, but Mann’s actual equipment seems to consist of an iPhone and a knockoff camera he found in a little store by Times Square. With the exception of a few striking aerial shots, Blackhat is smeary, shaky, ill-lit and just plain ugly to look at – in an age where digitally shot films can and often do look beautiful, there is no excuse for this.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that Mann has absolutely nothing to say about cyber-terrorism or security. Whether it’s the continuing revelations about the NSA, the recent Sony crisis or last week’s hijacking of the US Central Command’s Twitter account, these are threats that can present a formidable danger to our way of life and a free society. Yet Blackhat turns into yet another international chase-shootout-repeat scenario, with Hemsworth putting down the keyboard as quickly as he can and proving himself inexplicably adept at a half-dozen different ways of killing. He’s not quite as savvy at sabotage, however: in one laughable scene, he uses one truck to push another off a parking lot roof and through the ceiling of a server farm to create a distraction so that he can sneak inside the building – without stopping to wonder if sending a two-ton vehicle through the ceiling might actually destroy the hardware he needs to obtain.
But that’s Blackhat in a nutshell: poorly conceived and executed from start to finish. Even a mid-movie massacre that tries to channel the brilliant downtown L.A. gun battle in Heat – and knocks a good chunk of the cast out of the picture – fails to do anything beyond providing an initial shock because everything up until to that point has been so badly developed. We don’t care about the characters, we don’t understand what they’re doing, and it’s hard to parse out anyone’s ultimate goals. Even the unveiling of the villain in the end is a major “huh?” while his scheme is something that any decent Bond baddie would reject.
All this raises the final and biggest question: what has happened to Michael Mann? The incisive storyteller who made some of the best, grittiest dramas of the past 20 years – and yes, I count myself as a Miami Vice fan too – has stumbled badly twice in a row now. He needs to reassess his approach to filmmaking from the ground up. Meanwhile, someone might one day figure out how to make a great film about one of the most important issues of the 21st century, but Blackhat is not that movie. If I could send it to a recycling bin, I would.
Follow Don Kaye on Twitter @donkaye