The heat is strangely missing from Michael Mann’s fumbled first foray into the mysterious playground of computer hackers.
On first glance, it’s obvious what drew Mann to such material; hacking demands a methodology and an obsessiveness as life-consuming as the cops and criminals who do battle on the mean streets of the writer-director’s numerous crime movies.
The film’s release just weeks after the hack on Sony Pictures and on the back of a growing list of other big name incidents also lends the film an up-to-the-minute relevance.
It’s odd, therefore, that Blackhat never quite catches fire in the same way as his other crime thrillers, in particular Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004).
It doesn’t help that the film starts badly with an extended visually clichéd sequence of data infecting a Chinese nuclear power plant’s systems. The intention is clear – something so small can cause something so big – but it feels old hat and the film is further blighted by indulging in other computer movies chestnuts, most notably by having screens bleep when information is typed in (what computers actually make those sounds outside of the movies?!).
Baffled by who is responsible for the power plant incident and a subsequent hack on a US trade exchange, Chinese official Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) convinces FBI Agent Carol Barrett (a typically solid Viola Davis) to temporarily release convicted coder Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, doing his best) from prison to help with the investigation. As they edge ever nearer to the truth of what is actually going on, the threat grows, as does the attraction between Hathaway and Dawai’s sister Lien (Tang Wei).
Blackhat grinds to a halt for the techie bits, which usually involve one or more of the cast watching the beautifully coiffured Hemsworth bash away at the keys of a computer keyboard with a stern look on his face (the fact he’s a butch alpha male is explained in a throwaway moment early on when he starts doing press-ups against the wall of his cell).
Likewise, the chemistry between Hemsworth and Tang is pretty weak and the romance between the characters is as unnecessary as that between Colin Farrell and Gong Li in the otherwise underrated Miami Vice (2006).
However, the film comes alive when it takes to the streets, dispenses with much of the dialogue and has its camera tracking the characters like a bird of prey as they go to work. An early fight in a restaurant bodes well and the promise is delivered during two fantastic gun battles; one set in a shipping yard, with the noise of bullets thudding into the containers a particular highlight, and another, bloodier exchange on the streets of Jakarta.
This latter gunfight especially reminds you of just how much of a natural Mann is when it comes to knowing where to place the (now de rigueur DV) camera while letting the raw punch of gunfire do much of the work.
The director’s neo noir style comes to the fore during the numerous night scenes in Hong Kong, which allow the director to cross between beautifully lit narrow lanes and expansive streets bathed in colour and often flanked by banner advertisements of faces or eyes that underscore the film’s tone of being watched by forces of which we have little understanding.
In addition, the momentary flash of a binocular lens on a coffee pot in one scene also underscores the difference between the ultra-professionalism of Mann’s main characters and everyone else (while also bringing to mind the moment in Heat when a cop accidentally bumps against the side of a van during a surveillance operation).
There is much to like about Blackhat, but too many mishandled moments means you’ll be reaching for the proverbial control-alt-delete buttons come the end.