Thursday, January 15, 2015

'Blackhat' Movie Review: Michael Mann's Cyberthriller Is A Jumbled Misfire

With the massive Sony infiltration at the end of last year, and the subsequent threats of violence at screenings of The Interview, hacking is a big topic of conversation at the moment, one that is at the forefront of the public consciousness. Which makes the release of Michael Mann’s hacker thriller Blackhat seem incredibly fortuitous, as the action follows a team of Chinese and American agents as they track a mysterious cyber outlaw with destructive tendencies across the globe. Unfortunately for audiences, the movie is a dull, drab affair that, while occasionally slick, with a few moments of nice tension, carries little more than that to recommend it.

Computer technology changes and evolves so quickly that movies like this often feel out of date in short order (remember when the likes of Hackers, Lawnmower Man, and countless others were considered high tech?). As you watch these characters toss jargon back and forth, that side of Blackhat feels like someone watched an episode of 60 Minutes about hacking, and you can almost hear the relevance slipping away.

When a mysterious hacker causes a meltdown at a Chinese nuclear power plant, then attacks the American stock market, China’s Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and America’s Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) have to team up to deal the threat. Through a contorted series of events and coincidences that only get more tangled as the movie goes on, only Chen’s college roommate, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, who can never find a shirt that will stay buttoned—it’s a constant battle), can help them. First, however, they have to spring him from the joint, where, when he’s not hacking from his cell with some improvised device he cobbled together, he’s doing pushups. And of course he’s got a moral code—he hit banks, not people—and he explains his moral code as he explains how he doesn’t have a moral code.

There’s zero development here, and Blackhat thinks reading off Hathaway’s resume is tantamount to creating a character. No, it’s not, you’re just listing facts, it doesn’t tell you anything about him. Hemsworth does what he can, but mostly he’s left to glower and attempt to sound convincing as he says things like, “Does anyone have an Android phone?” and then mashes some buttons. You get a random tidbit about one character or another on occasion, but for the most part you know little about these people in any capacity. For instance, Barrett’s only defining character trait is that she lost a loved on in 9/11, a fact she blurts out for no reason whatsoever, and only succeeds in feeling cheap.

Hathaway has a super forced love story with Chen’s sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), who is there for some reason, which amounts to absolutely nothing. First off, they have nothing to work with in the script. They meet, start humping like rabbits, and out of the blue they’re in love like a day later. That’s not the actors’ fault, there’s nothing they can do about the lack of material, but it doesn’t help matters that the two have zero chemistry, just no spark whatsoever. You get it, they’re both pretty, and she’s seen pictures of him from his college days, so of course they fall in love and goes no deeper than that.

You develop no emotional connection to anyone in this movie, and are left to wonder about the motivation of every singe one of these people. Even the villain is an afterthought. Most of the movie the heroes just stare at computer screens and there’s this vague idea of a threat looming out in the ether, but at some point if feels like writer Morgan David Foehl sat back and went, “Holy shit, there has to be an actual person on the other end of this.” The result is a nefarious cardboard caricature that’s laughably bad. It’s another instance of a movie where the bad guy has an overly elaborate, problematic plan when he has the skills to easily accomplish his goals with much less trouble.

There are admittedly a few moments of strong tension where the reluctant team rushes to thwart another attack or run down a new lead. This is where Blackhat is the best, and where Mann is most in his element. For a short while you forget the shallow characters, lack of any legitimate investment, and the excessively complicated plot. These times don’t last long, and are invariably quickly replaced by a plodding slog of a pace, but there are flashes where you see the potential in this tired thriller.

If nothing else, Mann knows how to film a city at night, resulting in some stunning evening shots as the team bounces from Hong Kong to Jakarta and other locations around Southeast Asia. His handheld aesthetic, intended to give the material a verite style immediacy, never has the planned effect, but it’s relatively unobtrusive most of the time. Any instance where the action picks up, however, is a different story entirely.

This approach is fine when characters are hunched over a computer, cautiously walking through the fallout of a ruined nuclear facility, or during the procedural moments of the investigation. But anytime characters move with any quickness, say running down a hall or engaging in a shootout, the frame becomes jittery beyond all comprehension. At times, it’s damn near unwatchable. It’s hard to believe the man who staged one of the best gun battles in cinema history in Heat is the same filmmaker responsible for these garbled action scenes. Even at their best, they wind up looking like shitty digital mud.

Mann also does that thing I hate where the camera starts from far away, pulling in closer and closer and closer until you’re in the computer, in the wire, watching all the electrical signals and impulses zip back and forth. You get that it’s difficult to continually make people sitting at a computer typing and squinting at the screen riveting to watch, but this has been done to death, and at this point is more exhausted cliché than attention grabber.

Michael Mann has made some great movies in his career, Blackhat, unfortunately, is not one of them. The script doesn’t do him any favors, the story is bland and convoluted, the dialogue sounds like a Hacking For Dummies, and there’s nothing to engage you with the cast or material. From time to time, Mann almost finds solid footing, but more and more as the film goes on, it’s like watching a filmmaker skate by on his name alone. [Grade: C-/D+]

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