With surveillance concerns, security breaches and foreign hacker attacks tumbling though the news cycle pretty much constantly these days, it would seem that Michael Mann’s new thriller, Blackhat, is well-timed to reflect our cultural anxieties.
And it would be, I suppose, if the movie were really about hackers. But despite the marketing campaign and title—“black hat” is a term for a malicious hacker—Mann’s film is really about his usual crime thriller concerns: nighttime cityscapes, reflective surfaces and hard men with big guns.
Chris Hemsworth—a genuinely terrible casting choice—headlines as computer genius and furloughed convict Nichoas Hathaway. (Is there anything about Hemworth’s Hunk Ra-gorgeousness that suggests genius or convict?) Hathaway is doing time for high-end computer fraud. He’s the sort of hacker that can manipulate prison commissary accounts, given five minutes on a contraband mobile phone.
Hathaway has been sprung from the penitentiary by FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), who needs his expertise to track down a vicious hacker responsible for a nuclear plant explosion in China. Also on the bilateral investigative team: Hathaway’s old MIT roommate Chen (Wang Leehom), now a high-ranking Chinese intelligence official, and Chen’s sister (Tang Wei), commercial software expert and designated love interest.
The utility infrastructure hack and subsequent nuclear explosion are intriguing and scary. These are the film’s best early scenes. But the tired premise—government agency recruits computer genius with shady past—has been done to death in the hacksploitation genre. I kept expecting a twist, but no luck.
In any case, it doesn’t much matter, because the computer hacking details are gradually shunted off into MacGuffin territory as the gun fights, chase sequences and action scenes pile up. It should be noted that these are uncommonly good-looking gun fights, chase sequences and action scenes. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh tear through several locations in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Jakarta, toggling between moody nighttime skylines and brutal, bloody urban combat.
Visual style is Mann’s core strength as a filmmaker, and he’s got a good way with music, too. The man knows how to bounce light off metal with proper ambient scoring. The film also provides some cool CGI sequences where we follow the action of intrusion software on the silicon substrate level.
But just about everything else here falls flat. The villain’s not that scary, his machinations aren’t that clever, Hemsworth can’t sell his character, and there is no chemistry at all between him and Tang. Most disappointing, though, is the sense of missed opportunity.
Right now, it would be lovely—or at least, cathartic—to see a smart, compelling thriller about international cybercrime and disaster-level hacking gambits. Mann’s just the guy to make that film, too. He just didn’t, that’s all.