Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” benefits from direction that massively outshines its script

Blackhat poster

Michael Mann takes his best shot at making computers cinematic with Blackhat, a techno thriller potboiler that sees Chris Hemsworth’s imprisoned hacker freed to help track down a a cyber terrorist. After the ambitious Public Enemies fizzled, it makes sense for Mann to retreat to something inconsequential, but after six years even this is too modest. Working with a script that’s below him, he’s able to give it the Mann touch (the one thing Public Enemies was missing, incidentally), but not even his sensibilities are able to rescue a substandard globetrotter filled with preposterous plot developments and even worse computing.

Making matters worse, Mann’s strategy for depicting cyber crime is to roll back the clock by trying to make software a physical environment in as big a way as possible. Viruses are shown flooding through circuit boards and ethernet cables as a barrage of blinding white lights before the actual effects of them are shown: a power plant’s coolant system shutting down and the stock market being manipulated. That’s just the first five minutes. Thankfully, these are really the only two instances of hacking worth the microscopic treatment, and the outdated trope is ditched soon after. Damage done, we join Leehom Wang’s Chen Dawai, a Chinese officer specializing in cyber warfare who recognizes the software as one he wrote with his old MIT buddy Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) back in the States. He insists that Hathaway be involved, and things gradually fall into Mann’s wheelhouse once they begin their game of cat-and-mouse.

How they find themselves on the front lines of an armed conflict is anyone’s guess, but next thing you know, Hathaway is busting chairs over people’s backs and dodging gunfire in a shipyard between ingenious typing sessions on his laptop. A paper-thin romance develops between him and Chen’s sister Lien, and Hathaway’s sob story about finding himself in prison, where he’s used the time to develop intellectually and physically (because just look at him), comes out. Mann is used to dealing with steely characters, but Chris and Charlene Shiherlis this is not. The realest we get is from Viola Davis as FBI agent Carol Barrett, who has to wrangle the maverick coder and his unorthodox style. Aside from her, Dawai is too arrogant, Lien too lovey-dovey, and Hathaway too stereotypical, a misunderstood Robin Hood blessed with good looks and better brains.

China-US relations make for the most interesting dynamic in the movie, as Barrett, Hathaway, and the Chens finagle their way around leery officials and regulations that would prevent them from effectively doing their job. Somehow, the hacker’s identity never really arises as a strong point of interest, particularly after a group of generic Eastern European thugs pop up as the strongest form of resistance. The plot does end up unfolding a little too familiarly, too; memories of Casino Royale will resurface to even the most casual viewer. Even with cardboard characters, Mann still displays more of an interest in them than the resolution of the plot, which is another reason it feels pointless should they find out who it is.

Mann himself is the main attraction here. To continue to harp on the sluggish, poorly choreographed Public Enemies, Blackhat feels like a return to form. Ambience takes precedence over formality, and you find yourself watching scenes that have nothing to do with what’s actually onscreen. It’s a sign of Mann’s tremendous ability to multitask, underpinning even the most generic establishing shots and traveling scenes with mood and emotion. Small bursts of nonlinear editing keep the momentum high, and his shrewd use of handheld cameras adds just the right amount of in-the-moment tension. At times his use of digital cameras lets him down. Mann works hard to elevate the tone to an epic level, but some angles, mixed with the grainy visuals, pull him right back down to the small-scale thriller he agreed to direct. Even worse to watch is his struggle to recapture the magic of the serpentine shootout from Heat. He’s still head and shoulders above many other directors, but he doesn’t rove around as much as he used to. In the end, it’s a shame to see him wasted on a sub-par script, but given how he’s acquitted himself with on such a small assignment, it can only signal better things to come.

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