This is what happens when a master filmmaker takes on pulpy material, the kind of airport read you discard the moment your plane lands. Blackhat isn’t stupid, but director Michael Mann, who’s made some of the smartest, most influential and brilliantly crafted crime thrillers ever made, is using the screenplay as a jumping off point, not the foundation. Mann’s thematically similar Heat and Collateral, had gripping narratives to draw us in on the damaged, soulful figures at its center. Here, we have a cinematic virtuoso with blending imagery, ideas and human drama, working hard to turbo-charge an iffy screenplay.
Blackhat begins with a stunning, beautifully crafted scene that blends live action and CGI imagery, showing us how a nuclear power plant in China is hacked via malware, causing a massive explosion. Suit and tie big wigs at the FBI sit around and figure out that a RAT (remote administration tool) was used in the attack. A Blackhat is both a hacker and, I’m reminded by film history, a visual that suggests The Bad Guy (the hero, in some early westerns, typically wears The White Hat).
Chris Hemsworth (playing an American and sporting a quasi-Bruce Willis accent) plays Nick Hathaway, a legendary hacker who is released from prison to help a team of investigators track down the culprit of the explosion. The team includes Nick’s MIT buddy, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and his sister, Chen Lien (played by the beguiling Tang Wei, star of Lust, Caution). Lien falls fast and hard for Hathaway; they discover a shared attraction that grows as the danger increases. Their pursuit of armed, murderous crooks takes them in directions that threaten to tear their bond apart, putting everything they live for at risk.
As a fictitious investigation into the all-too-current topic of online hacking, the movie’s a bust. As a globe-trotting action movie, Mann is in his element. Hemsworth is wise to pursue non-Thor roles, particularly since his successful collaboration with Ron Howard on Rush demonstrated he can play more than a hammer-tossing Norse god. Unfortunately, he can’t hold the screen like some of the other leading men from Mann films, who embodied brute strength, survival instincts and a lovelorn heart.
Considering how Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp brought so much passion to Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and Public Enemies, respectively, it’s a disappointment to see Hemsworth provided a golden opportunity that he’s just not suited for. Wei initially seems stuck playing the love interest, but her role gets better in the second half and she arguably steals the film from Hemsworth. Viola Davis and Mann regular John Ortiz are stuck in exposition-heavy roles, though Yorick van Wageningen (a top notch character actor) brings great shades to the role of villainous mastermind behind it all.
By the time we reach the flamboyant, highly stylized climax, the battle between good and evil becomes downright mythic, with staging and emotions approaching operatic levels. Mann gets away with this and other grand uses of cinema. His movies, after all, are more exciting and cooler than almost anyone else’s.
After Mann’s belated absence (Public Enemies, my favorite film of 2009, was his most recent), and Drive and The Town effectively (and heavily) borrowing his look, themes and character types, it’s a pleasure to see him back. His latest is another muscular, visually gorgeous depiction of criminals in perpetual forward motion, though Blackhat closely resembles his enjoyable but muddily plotted Miami Vice.
Mann’s latest is held back by a story neither fresh nor fully immersive. Still, the sensational cinematography, thrilling shoot outs, cool soundtrack and (mostly) effective love story alone make this work.