Blackhat is a movie that has the same look as director Michael Mann’s critically acclaimed successes Collateral and Heat: a grainy real life aesthetic mashed with beautiful nighttime urban visuals. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t come close to matching those films with its manipulative, poorly written and poorly acted plotline.
We start off with a catastrophic explosion at a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong. Then, in Chicago, soy futures rise an outrageous amount at the Mercantile Trade Exchange. We learn through a painfully long CGI sequence of cables, wires and electrical impulses that the culprits are a group of hackers using a Remote Access Tool, which has the acronym nickname RAT. The opening sequence is supposed to show the vast connectivity of a single computer and the power of our antagonist, but instead, just like much of the film, the audience is lulled by the movie’s slow pace, which consistently builds to unsatisfying conclusions. The reasoning behind the attacks is actually quite diabolical, but by the time it’s revealed, the audience doesn’t care.
Moving on, the two hacks force the American and Chinese government to work together, and – wouldn’t you know it – Captain Chen Dawai and protagonist Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) created the coding framework for the RAT back in college. Small world, right… One problem, though: Hathaway is serving a 13-year prison sentence for his own cyber crimes, but it’s cool – the FBI brokers a little “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” deal with Hathaway, and bam, the cyber criminal is out working for the man.
Hathaway is a ludicrous character who isn’t remorseful about his criminal behavior and yet somehow has a heart of gold. When Dawai sees Hathaway, it’s like they’re old chums again and forget that he was serving time for hacking and Dawai’s livelihood is dependent on catching cyber criminals.
The dynamic between Dawai and Hathaway’s isn’t the only absurd shallow relationship in the movie. There’s Dawai and his sister Lien, who Dawai couldn’t do his job without. I guess in China you can bring anyone along for the cyber terrorism-tracking ride.
Then, Lien falls for Hathaway and Dawai is like, it’s cool, she’s never been happier, but dude what if you go to jail? Hellooooooo, he’s a criminal!!! And despite being in jail, he was still hacking the system, declaring his own manifesto of constantly exercising the body and mind. And I don’t think that temper thing is something to pass over. Hathaway first spent time in jail for a bar fight – a piece of information that is oddly, yet sort of conveniently revealed before he beats three men senseless at a restaurant.
The dim light of hope in the film (and I mean very dim) is FBI agent Carol Barrett, played by Viola Davis. Davis makes Barrett’s emotions and reactions feel realistic, and Barrett seems to be the only character critical of Hathaway. Davis shows for moments that when Mann’s material is put into talented hands – like with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Jamie Foxx – scenes that seem manipulative and cliché can become captivating.
But in this case, not even Davis could manage a good performance with a script so terribly written. You lose all respect for Davis’ character when after a heated phone conversation with her superior, Barrett’s partner asks, “Who did you lose in 9-11?” And Barrett answers in a solemn tone, “My husband.”
But what is absolutely unfounded and irresponsible is Mann, who also co-wrote Blackhat, referencing 9-11 with no context whatsoever. And after the issue was raised for about 30 seconds in the film, there was no mention of it again. People in the audience couldn’t help but laugh to hide their sheer shock and amazement over the scene.
But let me give some credit to Chris Hemsworth and the other characters that helped make Blackhat an unfulfilling experience to say the least. Hemsworth is unbelievable as a hacker and his performance poorly reflects the character transformations that are supposed to take place. There is no chemistry between Hemsworth and the Lien character, which is actually more of actress’ Tang Wei’s fault then Hemsworth’s. Lastly, there is tons of nonsensical violence that is misplaced and receives very little sympathy (or admiration, depending on the character) from the audience.
If you want to see a good Michael Mann film, take a look at any of his previous directorial features and I almost guarantee that they’re better. Blackhat is not simply a black mark on Michael Mann’s filmography; it’s a searing black.