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.
Hi Mark! Yeah this one was a disappointment which was a bummer since I usually like Mann’s work and this one was shot on location in my hometown Jakarta! But Hemsworth is awfully miscast here, and the romance is so blah. I did like Viola Davis (who’s always in fine form) and Leehom Wang who’s so underused. I’d like to see him in more films if he’s given the chance, I think he’s quite talented.
I love Mann’s work; I’m a massive fan of his, but I couldn’t quite get on board here. I really cannot see what the point of the romance was, except because Mann likes to inject a bit of romance into his movies. Cheers for the feedback Ruth 🙂
Btw, that scene in Jakarta during a Hindu celebration is pretty impressive in the way it’s filmed, and it’s fun for me to see my hometown on the big screen. But ultimately it didn’t add much to the story other than for visual flair, and Hemsworth came off like a big white jerk ruining the sacred ceremony!
Nice write up mate. I’ve heard a pretty simlar sentiment about this one, I’m not sure if its being released down under.
Hemsworth seems so miscast here. I dunno if you thought that but for the movie’s presense he seems like an awful choice.
Thank you Jordan, much obliged. A lot of people are commenting on how they feel Hemsworth is miscast. He struggles to sell a number of the lines to be sure. The action scenes almost save it, but not quite.
I’ll repeat what I wrote for my friend J.D.’s review, as it applies here:
Fine review and fair assessment of this Michael Mann film, Mark. The usual director elements are certainly there and work well for the faithful. You make good points concerning “Blackhat” strengths and some of the conveniences the story worked in. At first, watching this in a mostly empty AMC Theater (with sound system and seat effects) hall, I felt the same for the aspects tacked on. But by the finale, I was clearly pulling for the couple making their way to Indonesia. Mann always aces the technical craft involved, photographing them like few others. I thought Mann showcasing Asian actors we rarely see in prominent roles another plus. Always enjoy Viola Davis and Holt McCallany’s work in whatever they’re in. I very much caught up with Blackhat. But then again, I enjoyed “Public Enemies”, too! 😉
Much obliged as usual my friend. Mann is a master craftsman and there is simply no-one better at shooting gun battles (the use of the DV camera adds extra impact), but way too much of Blackhat feels like Mann treading water. The script could have done with a polish and I’d wish he’d kept away from all the visual cliches.
Very silly. But also very fun, too. It just takes a bit of time to get used to is all. Nice review.
Thanks Dan. Mann at least avoids it turning into a train wreck, but still. Not fantastic.
Good read Mark. I’m tempted by this despite the mixed review here (and elsewhere) but it doesn’t appear to be on near me. I’ll have to wait for TV, which is a shame as I want to see all the usual flashy Mann shots on the big screen.
I laughed at your point about computers making bleepy noises. I remember watching an episode of Spooks a few years ago where every single monitor started flashing the message ‘Alert!’ in red letters, as if that’d actually happen!
Despite the lacklustre spots and the occassionally lacklustre pacing, it’s still worth watching at the cinema if it possibly plays near you. It will definitely lose something on the small screen. The bleepy noises thing really grates; I expected better from the director.Thanks as always Stu.
I wanted to really like this movie but for some reason it took some rather boring turns. There were also some laughably bad moments and some pretty boring ones too. The action was the highlight for sure.
Sounds like you had a worse time with this than I did. I really wanted to like this more, but it never quite got into top gear. Cheers for the feedback Keith.
Disappointing but not surprising – this seemed to be the general consensus.
Pretty much yeah.