I’d been excited for this one. Excited enough that I included it among our most anticipated movies of 2015. I should have known better than to expect anything more than the annual slick, disposable early year thriller.
With the recent Sony hack and its various theories still making headlines, a film like Blackhat should feel like a resonant statement of modern life and a very real threat that most of us ignore or don’t notice. While the film does hacking well and hints at the depths of cyberterrorism and a dichotomy of tangible and virtual threats, it’s primarily a stylish but dull thriller that never quite satisfies. The result is a tech-heavy Jason Bourne knock-off with a pedigree for so much more.
This pedigree comes entirely from Michael Mann, craftsman of stunning character-driven thrillers including Public Enemies (which for all its flaws is absolutely beautiful), The Insider (a mostly forgotten masterwork of tension), Collateral (with its surprising profundity), and Heat (perhaps the greatest crime saga since The Godfather, Part II), as well as compelling social material such as Ali and The Last of the Mohicans. Mann remains a strong filmmaker, most apparent in the composition of Blackhat‘s many exterior sequences, often allowing for natural light to become an abstract to the on-screen action, yet the pacing, slickness, and eye for composition which are so often the hallmark of his work are perhaps at their worst here. Simply put, Blackhat looks nice, and its tension rises and falls in the right places, but both could have been much better. And from a director with Mann’s track record, they should have been better.
Where Blackhat falters most however is in story and character. Perhaps this comes from the fact that Mann didn’t write this one. Nick Hathaway, played by Chris Hemsworth, is given a history, a skill set, a handful of emotions, but he’s less a rounded person than an idealized figure which impossibly navigates a world seemingly designed only for him. He’s a hulking, super buff computer genius skilled with hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship whose only faults are over protectiveness and desperation, although still with a touch of nobility, and whose incarceration was met with magnanimity and enlightenment. It may simply be that Hemsworth himself remains too associated with his most known role of Thor, but Hathaway comes off superhero instead of human. Combined with a general detachment from the stakes of the story, with its consequences feeling more theoretical than real, and the film never reaches the required tension.
Hathaway isn’t the only under developed character either. Chen Lien, played by Wei Tang, becomes an inevitable love interest from the moment she first appears on screen. While Tang is fine in the part, Lien takes a long time to become anything more than the inevitable love interest and an excuse to film a beautiful actress in beautiful ways. Other characters are decent, particularly Viola Davis’s Carol Barrett who is at least given an attempt at depth, but never emerge as more than bit players in the story. The best they can do is essentially not obstruct as Hathaway does his combat artist/computer genius thing.
At other times the film itself becomes a bit too silly for its own good, with even its strengths serving as weaknesses. The sheer inevitability of Hathaway and Lien’s romance places its culmination somewhere between groan-inducing and laughable simply because it’s so damn inevitable (have I mentioned it’s inevitable?). It doesn’t help that the reaction of Lien’s brother and Hathaway’s friend makes no sense.
In other instances Mann’s usual visual brilliance works only to bewilder. The shaky cam technique prevalent in the Bourne movies is so extreme here it makes some running scenes nearly incomprehensible. Other than a couple of exceptions, slow motion is used in moments that obviously must be in slow motion. Perhaps worst of all, extras on screen are treated more as pieces of background than humans. They are there to fill the frame, at times strikingly so, rather than exist as part of the living world. In fact, (and this is a vague possible spoiler) an otherwise very well shot climax is ruined by literally treating its extras like cattle. These elements might look good, but their use merely calls attention to how poorly they’re used.
The beginning of every new year sees the release of at least one well-made, timely thriller that may be really entertaining and may make a lot of money but is forgotten within two months. That’s just the reality of mainstream cinema. In most cases, Blackhat would simply become a disposable diversion. However, as Michael Mann’s first film in six years, Blackhat isn’t just disposable, it’s a waste.