Blackhat offers a million dollar direction to a screenplay that’s not worth ten cents. For a cyber action/thriller that’s supposed to exploit groundbreaking cyber terrorism tech in our overwhelmingly digital age, its story, characters and performances are all made out of old-school wood. This is the kind of derivative 90s dumb action material that Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have creamed over. But in 2015, this dreck is way under Michael Mann’s either excellent (Heat, The Insider), or at least solid (Collateral, Public Enemies) standards. Simply put, it makes Miami Vice look like a masterpiece.
Blackhat tells the hacky (No pun intended) story of genius hacker Nicholas (A shirt-impaired Chris Hemsworth), who gets sprung out of maximum security prison by FBI so he can assist in solving a cyber terrorism case before a possible 9/11-level attack takes place. The film’s shamelessly emotionally manipulative constant references to 9/11 made me think about the "911 times a 1000" jokes from Team America. Basically, Hemsworth’s character is a younger, more tech savvy version of Sean Connery from The Rock.
Despite Mann’s insistence on injecting a "smart cyber thriller" aura into this tired material, it becomes fairly obvious from the opening scene that Blackhat is strictly targeting the lowest common denominator. A CGI representation of microscopic computer code clunkily visualized as an army of white lights invading microchips not only goes on for too long, it makes the visual depiction of the internet from 1995’s craptastic Hackers (A movie that’s a source of ridicule amongst real hackers to this day, I might add) subtle. Usually a refreshingly analog filmmaker, Mann must have fallen so much in love with this stunningly childish piece of animation that he even brings it back for the second helping I’m fairly certain no one in the audience asked for.
The performances and character motivations are all over the place. It’s Chinese cyber terrorism expert Dawai (Leehom Wang) who pulls Nicholas out of prison not only because "He’s the only man for this job" (Dun, dun dunnn!), but because they used to be college roommates. This automatically makes them BFFs and without any other character groundwork or development, and with zero chemistry between the two actors, Nicholas is supposed to be a hundred and ten percent dedicated to the case because of his loyalty to his friend.
Talking about zero chemistry, a forced romance that Mann unfortunately hangs a huge chunk of the film’s possible emotional weight on goes below zero and into arctic temperatures. The lack of warmth and any personal connection between Hemsworth and Wei Tang, who portrays Dawai’s hacker sister Lien, is so obvious that they look like they’d rather be literally anywhere else during their many sex scenes together.
After their "romance" is insufficiently telegraphed via a bunch of suggestive looks, Nicholas and Lien get it on in one of the most embarrassingly awkward love scenes of recent memory. Even then, it looks like they’re simply having some carnal fun as a way of lowering their adrenaline count after a deadly fight at a Chinese restaurant. Not very romantic, is it? Yet a couple of scenes later, we get a laughably pedantic scene where Dawai asks Nicholas what his intentions with Lien is and apparently, it turns out they’re madly in love! However, when Nicholas is once again running from the law, he looks nonchalant about leaving Lien behind. Make up your damn minds already!
Wei Tang is a respectable Chinese actress who was very good in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution as a woman torn between her duties for her cause and the man she spies on, with whom she’s gradually falling in love with. Yet in Blackhat, she gives one of the worst performances of recent years as a lead in a big budget film. She’s flat, lifeless and delivers her already wooden lines as if being forced at gunpoint. In a scene where she’s supposed to seduce a security guard, she looks like an alien unaccustomed to humanoid emotion and at least provides the movie with some unintentional hilarity. Either something got lost in translation, or she figured out how depthless her character was written and gave up from day one.
After George Lucas pushed digital filmmaking for sci-fi/fantasy during the early 2000s, Michael Mann pioneered the use of digital cinematography for more realistic action/dramas. Despite all of its narrative problems, Miami Vice showcases some of the most gorgeous-looking digital cinematography of the last decade. However, Mann himself looks tired of his own style in Blackhat, making the film look overtly clean and very, very digital. A nighttime shootout sequence is reminiscent of Mann’s glory days and is one of the sole bright spots in the film, but a similar shootout sequence during the day looks so flat and evenly lit that it might have been shot on an iPhone.
Blackhat represents a huge disappointment for a director of Mann’s reputation. It looks like he woke up every day thinking "How can I make this terrible scene remotely watchable?" Why did he pick this uninspired material in the first place? Did the producers get their hands on some pictures of Mann raping various barnyard animals and forced him to shoot this screenplay word-by-word?