Published Jan 16, 2015Twenty years ago, Michael Mann sat the two greatest actors of his generation down for coffee and filmed one of the most enduring scenes of the '90s. For a director able to wring tension and character development out of even the most seemingly mundane of scenarios, a globetrotting cyber thriller like Blackhat should be a cakewalk.
After an unknown force hacks into the computers at a Chinese nuclear facility, causing a catastrophic accident, government official Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) teams up with his U.S. counterparts after America experiences a similar, though ultimately unsuccessful, hack. Heading to the States with his sister (Wei Tang), a software engineer and "the only person he can trust," Chen quickly realizes that the hacker used a source code he co-wrote in school. He strikes a deal with U.S. agent Carol Barret (Viola Davis). His co-author and former roommate Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), in prison for blackhat hacking, gets sprung so they can track down the culprit. If they're successful, Hathaway gets out for good.
That's the setup for what, at the very least, should be a fairly straightforward action thriller. Yet Mann can't manage to squeeze an iota of tension out of the majority of the film's scenes. Blame the script from first time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, which neither paints a single character to root for or against, nor tells us much about the world of hackers we couldn't have gleaned from The Net back in 1995. The characters aren't just one-dimensional — they're blank slates, vessels to propel a plot that viewers are given little reason to care about. We can surmise that Chen feels a level of responsibility for the nuclear plant, but we're never given any evidence. And the supposed bond that exists between him and Nicholas is boiled down to a brief hug after Nicholas is furloughed.
The handful of action sequences that Mann expertly choreographs give the film its brief moments of glory. The sequences — all three of them — make a case for what could have been.
That famous scene between Pacino and De Niro in Heat works because, like in so many of Mann's movies, the lines between good and bad are blurred; it's not entirely clear if either man will make it out alive. Hathaway, the film's most likely candidate to blur those lines here, declares early on that despite his criminal past, he only ever hit banks, not people. Guess who makes it to the finish line?
Blackhat is a film below Mann's talents, even if his recent string of flicks (Miami Vice and Public Enemies) throws his status into flux. As expected, the film looks great, mixing sweeping cityscapes with tight handheld shots. But its not hard to imagine it actually faring better in the hands of someone like Michael Bay, one of Mann's enfants terrible who's built an empire out of making movies full of style but utterly lacking in substance.