Whether or not you value Blackhat depends on what you want from it. If you're looking for a coherent, compelling story with thought-provoking ideas and well-drawn characters, you've come to the wrong place. If you're looking for a movie that works as a truly cinematic experience – a collage of sights and sounds delivered in a sensuous, stylish way – the film may work for you. I'm not blind to the film's aesthetic pleasures, but I found it a frustrating experience. Story has never really been director Michael Mann's strong suit (more often than not, he's elevating routine material with his craftsmanship), but the storytelling offered by Blackhat is so dumb that no swoon-worthy tracking shot can overcome it.
The film opens with a visual representation of a piece of data making a digital journey from one computer to another. It's an opening that vaguely recalls passages from 2001: A Space Odyssey – a wildly complex scientific process cleverly reduced/elevated to a cinematic light show. The data eventually arrives at a nuclear plant in Hong Kong, where coolant pumps start exploding. Soon, we see another piece of data making a similar journey. This one arrives at the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago, and causes a minor economic earthquake of sorts. Someone sinister is out there, and it's clear that these attacks are merely a warm-up for... something.
The Chinese and American governments agree to collaborate on the case, so FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis, The Help) and Chinese Cyber Warfare Unit Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang, Little Big Soldier) team up and get to work. Dawai also brings his sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei, Lust, Caution) along for the ride, as she's one of the few network engineers he knows he can trust. The crimes were carried out using a remote administration tool (or RAT), and it just so happens that Dawai is one of two men who co-wrote the code used in the RAT. Dawai insists that he'll need the assistance of his old partner Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, Thor), who is currently serving a fifteen-year prison sentence for assorted hacking-related crimes. The FBI agrees to temporarily release Hathaway in exchange for his assistance, and our mission is underway.
During the film's press tour, the cast and crew members of Blackhat kept emphasizing the real-life relevance of the themes the movie explores. Blackhat is a relevant film in the sense that it's about the real modern threat of cyberterrorism, but the (mostly unseen) bad guy is basically a Bond villain – a man whose efforts at villainy are undercut by his pointless theatricality. The notion of fighting terrorism via computer is a fairly interesting one, but Mann and first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl mix scenes of virtual warfare with actual flesh-and-blood shootouts. The action scenes feel blandly obligatory, as if the film is acknowledging that you can't make an expensive thriller that doesn't have at least three or four gunfights.
Mann attempts to counteract the silliness by playing everything as quietly and cryptically as possible. There's a lot of information to process, and Mann makes it difficult to track everything that's going on. It's a bit challenging to keep up with all the who/what/when/where/why/how of everything, which is probably for the best. Once you catch up, you realize just how dopey the whole thing is. There's a great deal of clunky exposition within the script, but Mann attempts to hide this by having his actors underplay it. It's a nice try, but the end result is that most of the dialogue feels terminally dull (as opposed to merely ungainly). Blackhat feels like a big, dumb thriller directed like a moody art film, and the tonal disconnect provides entirely too many laughable moments.
Most disastrously, the film shoehorns a completely unconvincing and unnecessary romance into the mix. Hathaway and Lien fall in love as soon as they meet, and it's not just a, “you're hot, I'm hot, let's hook up” sort of love, either. They're completed devoted to each other within minutes, and it's a little bizarre that Mann and the actors do almost nothing to help us understand what these two see in each other. It would be one thing if this were just an obligatory side item, but the romance informs pretty much everything that Hathaway does going forward. The film's success depends on the audience being emotionally invested in their relationship, but the movie never gives us a reason to care about them. Mann has been able to wring emotion out of thinly-sketched relationships before (see his underrated Miami Vice), but this isn't even a sketch. It's a vaguely humanoid doodle.
Characterization tends to be a problem throughout. Hathaway is the only person the film seems interested in fleshing out to any degree, and he's still uninteresting. It's tempting to blame this on the miscast Hemsworth, who seems to have no idea of where to take the character and instead relies on his ability to look pensive and handsome simultaneously. Still, I'm not sure that anyone could have done much with this character as written. Hathaway is supposed to be one of the most brilliant minds in the world, but we never see any compelling evidence of that brilliance. We just see him as a man who likes wearing sunglasses, staring off into the distance, typing passwords and shooting at things.
Blackhat has found a following among certain cinephiles, and that's sort of understandable. It certainly looks and feels like a Mann film. The director continues to do compelling things with digital cinematography, giving the movie a chilly, noise-heavy grit. The music thumps and throbs over images of neon skylines, and we're frequently reminded of why Mann's directorial voice is so iconic. Alas, style can only take you so far. The film gets too many important, easily fixable things wrong. There are those who suggest that the story isn't the point (and they may be right), but that doesn't excuse its amateurish sloppiness. Blackhat may be good cinema, but it's a bad movie.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Year: 2015