14th Feb2015

‘Blackhat’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany | Written by Morgan Davis Foehl | Directed by Michael Mann


About an hour into my viewing of Blackhat I was struggling to remain conscious from boredom. About an hour later I was glued to my seat, my eyes and ears on full alert for whatever the film was going to throw at me next. So you’ll understand when I say I have considerably mixed feelings about crime maestro Michael Mann’s latest film. It’s his first since 2009’s Public Enemies, a film the subject of which (John Dillinger’s battle against the authorities in the 1920s) I was intrigued by but was severely ill-served by its amateurish and distracting digital handicam cinematography.

While that film disappointed after the electric promise of Collateral (I didn’t catch Miami Vice, perhaps luckily), my expectations were set lower for Blackhat, a cyber-thriller in the plot tradition of late ’90s hacker movies (super-genius/gorgeous badass gets pulled into a shitstorm that he has to alternately type and punch his way out of). Chris Hemsworth takes the lead as a floppy-haired American who’s given conditional release from prison, ostensibly so that he can assist the US and Chinese governments into figuring out who’s using bits of his old code to blow up Asian power stations.

What he’s really there for, of course, is to look pensive while shirtless on a balcony and try to seem reasonably competent with a keyboard while the agents around him stand in awe of how great he is at typing stuff. Which he actually pulls off reasonably well, but it’s Mann’s camera that really does the heavy lifting in telling the story and making us aware of the important stuff.

Unfortunately for us, the important stuff tends to happen in clinically-lit motel rooms or sparsely-populated freeways, as is the director’s preference, and it’s quite often hard to make out when Mann opts for grainy shaky-cam photography that’s likely supposed to symbolise the moral uncertainty of the digital age but really just makes the scenes look like Hemsworth’s done a favour for some sub-par cinematography students. As the characters follow the plot threads around the world (namely the US, Hong Kong and Indonesia) the scenery doesn’t change all that much and the characters spend the first 60 minutes setting up a bunch of exposition and backstory that would have been fine if any of it was necessary and didn’t bore me to tears.

There’s a merciful lack of technobabble and exposition in the second half (though Hemsworth does a nice job of explaining the villain’s entire plan to his sort-of-colleague-but-mainly-love-interest Wei Tang while both are looking like they’re in an expensive watch advert) and a significant increase in the number of tense, masterfully staged action sequences. For everything else, Michael Mann is still peerless when it comes to standoffs between highly-trained professionals who actually seem to know what they’re doing. One such sequence, a gun battle between government agent Viola Davis’s forces and the terrorist gang responsible for the plot, feels like it came from the Mann who made Heat 20 years ago, and made me ache for that filmmaker’s presence in the rest of the movie’s stodgy pace and tiresome plot.

There are exciting moments, sure, but they only serve as interesting punctuation in an otherwise laboured run-on sentence. Morgan Davis Foehl’s screenplay has the basis for an interesting commentary on attitudes towards today’s cyber-crime, especially in its last twenty minutes, but never seems to establish anything approaching an overall thesis during its somewhat bloated runtime. Blackhat also isn’t helped by wafer-thin female characters :Wei Tang is supposed to be an equal to Hemsworth and her fellow agent brother, but when shit gets real she’s told where she needs to go by both and accedes with barely any protest; and Viola Davis’s supposedly tough and capable team commander is more or less solely driven by her dead husband who was a victim of 9/11, and serves absolutely zero purpose in a firefight in which her male subordinate downs bad guys in rapid, almost comical succession.

It’s hardly surprising to remember that Mann is one of the most masculine filmmakers still working today, but he usually displays a certain level of visual wit and depth of subtext that makes the surface failings of his work less evident. To be sure, some of that is on show in Blackhat – the climactic sequence being another wholly ludicrous but mesmerising and muscular reminder that his work may be occasionally disappointing but never dismissed – but not nearly enough to make his latest effort stand as anything other than an intriguing anomaly in both Mann’s career and 2015’s cinematic landscape.

Blackhat is out at cinemas on February 20th.

Trackbacks & Pings