One of the sub-plots of last year’s hilarious The Trip to Italy involves one of the main characters getting the opportunity to audition for a “big Michael Mann movie”. The first thing I thought about when I heard those words was: “Is there such a thing as a big Michael Mann movie anymore?”. Mann’s last movie was Public Enemies, a prohibition-era flop starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. It’s been five years, but Mann is finally back with Blackhat, the story of an incarcerated hacker who teams up with the FBI on a mission that might win him back his freedom. It easily fits with the director’s previous studies on nocturne skylines and violent masculinity. Blackhat is a Michael Mann movie, albeit a very bad one.
So, how does a Michael Mann movie -a big-budget action-thriller that is neither a sequel nor based on a comic-book- get made nowadays? Well, you just have to cater to the international market, and more specifically, China. Blackhat opens with a remote attack on a Chinese nuclear power plant. The attack proves to be a minor catastrophe for the Chinese government, which immediately sets one of their best security experts Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) on the case. Chen is joined by his sister Lien Dawai (Tang Wei, who you might remember from her outstanding work in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution).
The Chens are at the center of the plot, but the movie belongs to a different character. Chris Hemsworth plays Hathaway, a hunky hacker who is serving time in a maximum security prison when he is presented with the opportunity to regain his liberty if he helps the FBI, which by this point has teamed up with the Chens in order to capture the hacker that attacked the power plant. The rest of the movie’s plot matters relatively little. Screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl seems to have little to no interest in the mechanics of his plot, our main concern in this story should not be geopolitics, but the happiness of Hemsworth’s character.
Not that the character gives any hints at being capable of experiencing happiness. Hathaway spends the whole movie either brooding about the path he had in life, or punching people with chairs. If I remember correctly, I think he has one funny line in the movie’s two-hour-plus running time. Why Mann would take an actor as well known for his comedic charisma as Hemsworth and waste him in this shell of a part is beyond me. At one point Hathway hooks up with Chen Lien (because of course he does), and he doesn’t seem very thrilled about it. I believe this is the first time he has kissed a woman in nine years, but I guess he doesn’t want to break the broodingly-masculine vibe that he seems to have perfected during his time in prison.
Blackhat is yet another story about individualism, in which a mission that started as a team effort can only be achieved thanks to one extraordinary man. A man that, incidentally, happens to be a handsome white dude. I initially thought it was pretty cool that Blackhat was so full of minority characters (and wonderful Viola Davis is wasted as the FBI agent in charge of the operation), and that it had two Chinese actors at the center of its plot, but soon enough the movie revealed all these people to be satellites that orbit around Hemsworth’s character. This globe-trotting thriller, which involves many nations and the safety of millions of people is only interested in the desires of this one white man. So much so that the climatic action sequence is a shoot-out that takes place in a sea of Indonesian people, at a spot actually chosen by the lead character. Of all of Mann’s explorations of men and manliness, Blackhat is the least interesting one. More of a childish fantasy than an exploration.
Still, despite being a movie about hackers in which computers go “beep beep bloop”, and despite not providing much food for thought, Blackhat could excel as a sensorial experience. Mann is, after all, one of the most stylish directors out there, and if someone is going to use sound and picture in the most thrilling and exciting way possible, it would be him…Except in this case. Blackhat is not only a supremely dumb movie, but a surprisingly un-engaging one. As far as the technical aspect is concerned (the nighttime digital photography, handheld camera, and quick cutting), it displays nothing that wasn’t done better and more interestingly in previous Mann movies. You know, ones where there seemed to be a dialogue between visuals and theme. This is all to say that I wouldn’t mind Blackhat if it was dumb fun, but sadly, the insipid seriousness of its tone makes it an insufferably boring movie instead.
Grade: 3 out of 10