“Blackhat” Movie Review

      There are certain directors who make us wait what seems like eons for their next film and normally those films are well worth the wait.  Quentin Tarantino immediately comes to mind where gaps of three or four years between films are common, yet he consistently hits the mark, producing one classic after another.  Director Michael Mann is a filmmaker who has followed the same pattern and has a number of great films to his credit.  We’re talking about the guy who created the famed television show “Miami Vice” and was then able to parlay that style of shotmaking into a feature film career that has included “Manhunter”, “Heat”, “The Insider”, and “Collateral” to name a few.  His last effort in 2009 was the Christian Bale and Johnny Depp starring vehicle “Public Enemies”, a period mob film about reputed gangster John Dillinger that may have been slightly underwhelming compared to his previous work.  Mann returns to the screen with an equally underwhelming film, the cybercrime thriller “Blackhat”, starring Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) as a globetrotting convict furloughed by the U.S. Government to track down an international cyberterrorist.

     At face value, a Michael Mann film starring Chis Hemsworth doesn’t seem to me to be the type of film that would have a January release date.  The month is typically reserved for two types of films.  The first being the wide release of the awards contenders whose playdates were limited to Los Angeles and New York in December.  And the second being those films that likely sat on the studio shelf for years and are dumped during the month to try and get something out of them before their home platform release.  “Blackhat”, a slick high end production with bankable stars and a high profile director, doesn’t fit into either of those categories, as it has the look of something more suited for the spring or fall months where these types of adult oriented films normally prosper.  Perhaps the boundaries studios normally go by are beginning to blur since the summer movie season and the many high profile tent poles studios put out at that time seem to be moving back as early as April, which could have forced a film like “Blackhat” to stake claim to January.

     There are plenty of issues with “Blackhat” that ultimately will classify the film as being one of Mann’s lesser efforts and that blame seems to fall directly on first time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl.  The story begins with an accident at a nuclear reactor in China where prior to the explosion, we are shown a minutes long visual effect of a computer virus making its way into through the various fiber optic cables and circuitry of the nuclear plant’s systems, courtesy of a hacker, and ultimately causing what occurs.  Though this is most certainly a catastrophic incident for those in and around China, the incident doesn’t do much in the way of causing a sense of urgency for the audience when you watch it unfold.  The whole initial scenario is quite anticlimactic and you have to wonder from the get go if it would’ve been more engrossing to have the incident take place on American soil instead.  In the very next sequence we see a second attack on a foreign stock exchange in which the hacker alters the price of soy futures of all things.  I can just see your average millennial watching this and saying “So what?”.

     When the head of the investigation from the Chinese government, Dawai (Leehom Wang), meets with the FBI and Special Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), he tells her he has discovered fragments of code within the hacker’s program that he and his college roommate Nick Hathaway  (Chris Hemsworth) had written years ago while still in school.  He figures the only person capable of properly tracking the hacker and stopping him before he can cause more international mischief is Nick.  Problem is, Nick is currently serving 15 years in prison for hacking into numerous U.S. banks and stealing millions.  Of course, the feds are able to get Nick released with the stipulation his involvement in the investigation will lead directly to the capture of the hacker.  Most of this is resolved in the film’s first 20 minutes and from that point on, we are taken on an international road trip by Mann with stops in both Hong Kong and Jakarta, Indonesia.

     Ever present is Mann’s signature style that includes moody colorful lighting, grand cityscapes in the background, and a pulsing electronic score.  There’s no doubt filtering this story through Mann’s lens works well for the material, but there are serious problems with the characters, some of which are woefully underused in the script, as well as some of their interactions with one another.  Along for the ride is Dawai’s sister, Lien (Wei Tang), who is also adept in her computer forensic skills.  She has interaction with Nick for all of a day or two and they suddenly fall for each other.  This prompts a conversation to occur on a helicopter where Dawai tells Nick he has never seen her happier, but fears if he goes back to prison should the mission fail, she will be hurt and alone.  At this point I’m thinking this has to be the fastest moving relationship between two people in cinematic history since they’ve known each other for less than 48 hours and are now moving from their one night stand to a long term future.  Davis’ Carol Barrett, who we perceive is in charge from the American side of the team is left with only a handful of scenes and virtually no meaningful dialogue.  In fact, if you’re wondering what the number one element is that is missing from “Blackhat” when compared to Mann’s previous films, that’s it, the characters have nothing interesting or memorable to say.

     Still though,  Mann manages to deliver several notable action sequences and shootouts that carry much of the realism and intensity you will remember from his most famous film of this kind, “Heat”.  In addition, the film’s finale, which thankfully is a physical encounter rather than the constant keystroking the rest of the film is comprised of, takes place in the middle of a crowded Indonesian parade with the outcome and its visual depiction coming across as quite creative.  Though the story and many of the characters are preposterous, the overall production and the film’s pacing are top notch as you would expect from a director of this level.  “Blackhat” has all of the gloss and high end spectacle of a film you would expect to see at a different time of year, but the lack of a story the mainstream can relate to tells me the studio knew what it was doing when they gave it a January release date.  GRADE: C