Movies · Reviews

‘Blackhat’ Will Have You Wondering if Michael Mann Just Misspelled Asshat

Maybe just rewatch ‘Collateral’ instead.
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on January 15th, 2015

Someone, somewhere, hits the “Enter” key, and a nuclear reactor in China explodes. A similar attack against the U.S. fails, but when the same hacker causes minor havoc on the stock exchange a joint American/Chinese task force is formed to locate and capture the cyber bully. Captain Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) insists that they need the assistance of a currently imprisoned hacker named Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), and soon the team – which also includes F.B.I. agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), U.S. Marshal Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany) and Chen’s sister, Lien (Tang Wei) – is trotting around the globe in search of the criminal mastermind.

Hackers haven’t exactly had the best track record when it comes to being central to a film’s plot, and the great ones can be counted on one hand – WarGames, Sneakers, ? – so newly announced titles are often greeted with understandable hesitation. The news that Michael Mann would be tackling the topic created something of a conundrum – sure it’s a movie about frenetic keyboard slapping, but it’s from the director of Heat, Thief, The Insider and Collateral. So it could still be good, right? Hell, there’s a chance it could be great!

Well thankfully all of that hand-wringing can stop now. Blackhat is most definitely not great.

Chen and Hathaway were college roommates at M.I.T. and co-wrote the code that has since been modified by the bad guy for malicious purposes, but while the former took a position with the Chinese authority after graduating Hathaway turned to hacking banks for profit. He used his time behind bars wisely, exercising both his mind and body, and he knows the only way to have his sentence fully commuted is to dig deep and put his elite hacking skills to the test.

He does just that in one pivotal scene by sending a phishing email to an NSA agent who pauses, carefully reads the message stating his password needs to be changed, and then clicks on the email attachment.

This is just one example of the rampant silliness on display in the script by Morgan Davis Foehl (with reported but uncredited work from Mann himself). Other instances involve police action (or inaction), the repeated ease with which the 6’3″ Hemsworth avoids detection in Chinese and Indonesian crowds and just about everything involving Tang’s character. She’s identified as a network engineer to alert us that she’s not simply there as beautiful window dressing, but then she’s treated as nothing but beautiful window dressing. Hathaway and Lien meet, get frisky and suddenly fall in love over the course of a few days, and that empty relationship is given excessive, unjustified weight as the narrative moves forward. It can’t just be a good time, no, she can only fall in love at the risk of being unhappy if Hathaway goes back to prison. Their emotional connection isn’t given convincing time or dialogue exchanges, but by the third act the film wants us to view it as being of equal importance to capturing the homicidal hacker.

Hathaway does very little that any competent, federally-employed hacker couldn’t manage, unless of course you count his physical antics. Because he’s more than just a genius with a keyboard – he’s also capable of taking on and defeating multiple bad guys at once with fists, firearms, and wooden chairs. He’s so good in fact that he’s the only one, good or bad, smart enough not to stand in the open during a shootout.

Script issues aside, Mann’s latest is also a fairly unattractive movie. Action beats are often captured via closeups and shaky cameras which helps drain them of intensity. He’s been a proponent of digital over film for a while now, but while his other digitally-shot efforts manage at least some particular beauty and/or grittiness, Blackhat is a visually unappealing mess. Traditionally striking locales like Jakarta and Hong Kong are instead flatly unexciting to the senses. Your ears will be just as unhappy thanks to a sound mix that repeatedly buries dialogue and on at least one occasion makes the Chinese characters look like they’ve been dubbed. Poorly.

Hacking is a timely topic so it’s not difficult to see why Mann was attracted to the idea of making a film about it, but what is unclear is what exactly the acclaimed auteur is wanting to say with Blackhat. It’s a failure as pure entertainment thanks to everything mentioned above as well as its dreadful pacing that make 135 minutes feel like twice that, and any hope of relevance on the topic disappears early on when we’re treated to a fairly shoddy CGI visualization of how information “moves” in computers and across cables.

The film references 9/11 more than once as if to draw correlation to the threats we now face from online terrorists, but the impending peril our heroes are attempting to stop is presented in such a benign way as to lack anything resembling suspense or drama. Attempts at big spectacle come up empty leaving viewers with bland, uninformed characters to fall back on, but Mann’s utter inability to capture human emotion here leaves that avenue equally unfulfilling.

There’s very little to recommend about seeing Blackhat. Hemsworth’s and Tang’s talents and assets are on display in other, far better films, as are Mann’s, and if it’s a hacking-related movie you’re after then you’re better off re-watching Swordfish. Sure it’s dumb, but at least it’s dumb fun.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.