Michael Mann (Collateral, Heat) likes to make a very specific type of movie. They usually feature a male protagonist who is a relative expert in a certain field, but alienated somehow from the world around him. He’s thrust into conflict either by chance or because he’s “the only man for the job”. There’s usually a scene at dinner or in a coffee shop where our protagonist lays out his life story (for his co-star, but mostly for us). The action is violent and filmed roughly, usually with a hand camera style that is meant to bring the audience into the action and make it feel more realistic. He usually tends to employ rich, artistic, and impacting soundtracks to build tension and carry us through action scenes. There’s usually a twist or a big reveal at the end that changes the stakes or how we perceive something.
They’re also kinda dumb. I don’t really like these types of movies. Mann’s early stuff was interesting. I liked Heat and Manhunter. But he’s been on a downward trend lately. Collateral (Tom Cruice/Jamie Foxx) came out in 2004 and was the last movie of his I actually enjoyed. A quick jump over to Rotten Tomatoes says the general consensus agrees with me.
I approached Mann’s new film Blackhat with this mindset. I wasn’t even planning on seeing it originally. It’s one of those movies I’d happily miss and/or wait a year for it to come out on HBO. But my boss decided that it would be a good “training” for our security group to spend a Friday afternoon watching a movie about fake hacking; so…we went. Blackhat managed to meet my incredibly low expectations. It’s a film that checks off every “Michael Man Trope” listed above, but all in crappy, uninteresting or contrived ways.
The film is about an imprisoned super hacker named Nicholas Hathaway played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor, not Hunger Games Hemsworth) who is released from prison to assist both the American and Chinese governments track down a “black hat” hacker who was able to successfully infiltrate and cause an explosion at a Chinese Nuclear Power Plant. For those of you who don’t know what a black hat is, the movie never really bothers to explain that to you. Apparently it’s not too important. Just know: black hat = bad guy. Hathaway and his old college roommate Chen Dawai, now a Captain in China’s cyber war crime unit, wrote some code years ago that the black hat is now using to infiltrate the power plant, and later the Mercantile Trade Exchange for some nefarious reasons. Of course, Hathaway is the only man with the know-how to stop him.
What unfolds is sort of a cyber detective story as Hathaway and Co. sprint around the globe trying to figure out who the mysterious black hat is, what he wants, and what his end game is. It’s an interesting concept but it’s executed so poorly that I found myself losing complete interest about halfway through the film. By the time the bad guy’s plan is revealed two hours into the movie, you just don’t care anymore.
Hemsworth is stiff, uncomfortable, and terribly miscast as Hathaway. He reads his lines like he doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about and his chemistry with Chen Lien, the female love interest of the film, is non-existent. I don’t have a problem with Hemsworth not looking like your traditional nerdy, computer hacker. It’s a movie, we have to suspend our belief a little bit. My problem is that he doesn’t really act like a computer hacker. It’s a problem with Hemsworth’s performance and the movie as a whole. The film wants Hathaway to be both a brilliant computer nerd that can hack into anything and an action star that can stab dudes in the temple with a screwdriver. Hemsworth succeeds at the action part, but can’t pull off the nerdy side.
The script isn’t helping him much on this front either. Hathaway is simply a boring character. His motivation is thin and uninteresting, his back story barely explained, and his arc almost non-existent. The dialogue is clunky and awkward; over explaining some areas, but deciding to leave out important details in others. The worst offense to me is the dinner scene where, in typical Mann fashion, Hathaway explains his entire life story to Chen Lien so she can immediately fall in love with him. Hathaway’s sudden need to share makes no sense thus far in the film and the entire scene is filled with terrible expository dialogue about how he’s a misunderstood guy, but willing to do his time; and how in prison he decided he needed to keep both his mind and his body sharp. It’s trite to say the least, and this entire scene is terrible.
In typical Mann style, much of the scenes are shot using handheld cameras and I think it’s awful and out of place in this film. I understand the intent of the style. The non-fluid movements and shakiness creates realism, giving us the feeling we’re in a documentary, not a movie. The problem is in a film where Thor plays a world class hacker and stabs guys with tools, it’s clear we’re not in a documentary. The handheld cameras are reserved almost exclusively for chase sequences, where the camera jumps around so much you can barely see what’s going. These sequences are consistently inter-cut with some sweeping (and beautiful) crane shots. But every time there’s a cut between crane and a bounding handheld, the effect is jarring and uncomfortable. It ends up having the opposite effect than the one it’s trying to achieve: it takes me completely out of the movie.
Whats worse, the score, usually a strong point in Mann’s movies is simply awful. I’m pretty sure at one point the entire score was just the beeping of an alarm clock, over and over again. I don’t usually mention scores in my reviews because it’s not something I’m too versed in, but this was bad enough that I had to mention it. Turns out the credited composer agrees with me. While attending the premier he was shocked to find that “the ‘score’ for ‘Blackhat’ may be credited to me but contains almost none of my compositions. … I was not the author of most of what is now in the movie.” I doubt we’ll ever know the full story of what happened here, but whatever music decisions were made in post production were clearly the wrong ones.
In an attempt to not be so terribly negative I will say that the violence in the film is really fun. The aforementioned screwdriver to the head scene is one of many shockingly violent death scenes of which there are several. It’s always fun to see Chris Hemsworth completely destroy some bad guys. These scenes are all filmed well and add a couple of moments of enjoyment in an otherwise boring mess.
Blackhat is a weird movie. What starts out with an interesting high-minded concept degrades quickly into a pretty standard (and bad) action movie. I assume Michael Mann made this film because he was interested in the increasing prevalence of Cybercrime in our daily lives, but the hacking and Cybercrime in this film is only surface deep. It’s basically what you’d get if you asked your dad what hacking was. At more than two hours it’s an overlong slog through a meandering mess of a plot. If you love Mann movies you might enjoy this one, but I feel he really missed the mark with this one.