Blackhat (a slang term used to designate a hacker) represents Michael Mann's attempt to put a new spin on an old genre by adding "cyber" to "crime thriller." Blackhat uses the foggy world of hackers and cybercrime much as he might use background music: as a way to enhance a story, not to anchor it. For the most part, Blackhat takes place in the real world, with real world thriller elements like shootouts, fights, and explosions comprising the lion's share of what transpires on screen.
The motion picture industry is still looking for its first great "cyber-thriller." Blackhat isn't it, although the film earns marks when it comes to verisimilitude (at least for its first two-thirds), an admittedly daunting hurdle. The narrative touches on how the manipulation of code and the launch of malware can have devastating real-world consequences. However, Mann's animated attempts to give the movie an unconventional look when it delves into the land of 1's and 0's look like outtakes from TRON. The problem with making a movie about cybercriminals is that their methods are inherently non-cinematic. Maybe there's a visionary director who can ramp up the tension focused on a person sitting in front of a computer for days or weeks but it hasn't happened yet; even Lisbeth Salander was more interesting when she was out and about.
From a box office standpoint, Blackhat is on fragile ground in large part because it's not a playground for big-name stars. Apart from "Sexiest Man Alive" Chris Hemsworth, who plays the lead, and Viola Davis, no one in Blackhat is going to be familiar to the average American movie-goer. Wei Tang and Leehom Wang do solid jobs, but who outside China has heard of them? And, although Hemsworth is best known as Thor, it's questionable how far beyond the Marvel Universe his appeal ranges. Blackhat utilizes the abilities he showed in Ron Howard's Rush but, while that may help Hemsworth's acting credibility, it likely won't do much to fill theaters.
Blackhat concerns jailed hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) who is given a chance at freedom if he works as a consultant to collaborating U.S. and Chinese authorities investigating the activities of a global cybercriminal who has already caused a nuclear disaster and a stock market roller coaster ride. Working alongside his skeptical handler, Carol Barrett (Davis); his ex-college buddy, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang); and Chen's brainy sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), Hathaway uses his training, mind, and brawn to follow the hacker's trail across Asia.
Despite being overlong, Blackhat is mostly engaging. The narrative features one major change of direction and things get increasingly preposterous as the climax approaches, but that's not unusual in this genre. Like a lot of Mann productions, there's a stylistic emphasis to how things are presented with a mix of hand-held sequences, overhead shots, beautifully framed cityscapes, and violence that sometimes borders on artistic. Mann also delights in playing with his viewers. There's a scene in which we know something is going to blow up. To enhance the moment, he toys with shot selection and drags things out. The film also does a good job on an emotional level by investing the audience in the romance between Hathaway and Lien Chen, which is suitably tender and not overplayed.
Blackhat follows the James Bond formula. It takes viewers on a global tour that includes stops in the United States, Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Malaysia. The villain is the typical 007 megalomaniac-type who's ultimately a little disappointing when we see him up close. He has a henchman. There's an "M"-type (that's Viola Davis' role) and a girl/love interest. It's a little ironic that for a movie that seeks to dramatize crime's cutting edge, Mann has reached back to one of the most venerable action-thriller templates.
In the end, Blackhat's biggest drawback may be that it's an adult movie released into a marketplace that is increasingly hostile toward films of this sort - productions that require a degree of patience and a willingness to pay more attention to the theater screen than the cellphone that is supposed to be turned off. Blackhat is far from Mann's best work (for me, that remains his 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans although Heat has its share of supporters) but it's a serviceable thriller that deserves better than to be dumped into an ignominious January grave.
© 2015 James Berardinelli