It has been roughly seven years, but now acclaimed director Michael Mann has released his latest film after dabbling in the TV sector before that industry suddenly spit him out. This is a good thing, because Mann is known for developing some of the finest modern thrillers, most notably Heat, The Insider, and Collateral. I had been following this film since its inception, because I was intrigued at the fact that I would be able to see a Michael Mann film in the theaters for the first time (wasn’t exactly young or old enough to see Public Enemies when that was released). Naturally, with such an esteemed pedigree, you’d think that Blackhat would be a shoo-in to take the reins of your adrenaline level and pump it up while maintaining an interesting vibe throughout. Unfortunately, that does not exactly seem to be the case here.
The first issue for concern is that, for such a director like Mann, it’s odd to see him take up a script by a relatively unproven writer: Morgan Davis Foehl. Foehl, from my recollection, wrote the script to this movie when he’d been assigned by Legendary to write the second draft of the Mass Effect script (guess I should probably give up hope for that ever coming out). Anyway, in Blackhat, a hacker compromises a nuclear reactor in China, causing a partial meltdown and the next day he hits the stock market, causing the price of soy to spike an undoubtedly throwing the world’s financial markets for a small loop. Since both of these attacks by the black hat hacker (a hacker that violates systems for personal gain) occurred on two separate countries, China and the U.S. decide to team up to catch the hacker.
Conveniently, the Chinese official in charge of his part of the investigation went to MIT and while there, he was the roommate of another convicted hacker, played by Chris Hemsworth. The official secures Hemsworth’s cooperation in exchange for his freedom and the team travels the world in pursuit of the electronic trail, trying to discover where the deceit and the lies end.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of Blackhat, right off the bat, are the characters. None of them are particularly interesting. It’s not that anyone is doing a bad acting job here, the script is not very forgiving with their actions and the dialogue. Hemsworth is basically relying on his good looks just to get by (if you can imagine, in all its outlandishness, that a hunky guy like him is a hacker), so if you can just imagine that he’s Thor you’ll most likely not take a particular grievance with his performance. Viola Davis, sporting a laughable wig, is the only other recognizable actor in the film, but she’s merely background noise.
The Chinese actors are also bland, but there exists some questionable dubbing because there were a multitude of times where their mouths and the words didn’t exactly line up properly. Most likely their accents were too thick in some places but it should have called for reshoots. Also, the Chinese official that knew Hemsworth in Blackhat conveniently happens to have a hot sister, and without any build-up whatsoever, Hemsworth and the elegant Tang Wei (from Lust, Caution) seemingly spontaneously find themselves in a relationship. It’s so sudden and unbelievable it makes marriages from Skyrim seem like an arduous affair. You’d think a critical character relationship like that would have been examined further in pre-production, it is massively underdeveloped.
As to the film itself, it’s actually a bit boring. I found myself checking my watch a couple times and I was surprised because Blackhat is not exactly the most lengthy movie out there, but there were interludes in which nothing particularly interesting was going on. But, as per standard Mann fare, the action scenes are definitely the best part. Film aficionados can be hard pressed to recall such a tense and realistic shootout that trumps the one in Heat, and it’s Mann’s skill in directing the gun battles that offer tiny glimpses of why this movie is worth it. They’re tense, explosive, and incredibly visceral. Hell, the final action scene near the end is brilliantly shot and nail-bitingly captivating. I won’t deny, when the action is going on, Blackhat is awesome. When it’s not, it’s a bore.
Also, I have to note that the villain’s plan in Blackhat makes no goddamn sense. When you inevitably find out the master stroke of his supposedly “genuis” plan, it’s a bit underwhelming. Not to mention, it completely derails the rationalization for wrecking a nuclear power plant and tampering with the commodities market. Those two acts did nothing in the grand scheme of things except deliberately draw attention to the fact that there was a rogue hacker afoot. If the hacker had maintained more composure and laid a bit lower, he would have been able to pull off his plan without a hitch and there would never have been the need for a movie. I’m usually not so arrogant, but I bet I could have written a better plan then that.
Since Blackhat is a film about hacking, computer geeks should be pleased to note that the hacking scenes are at least somewhat realistic (well, more realistic than Hackers…or The Core). Since I am quite out of my league when it comes to technobabble, I’m giving this film the benefit of the doubt when the hacking scenes arise because they did seem to be, for the most part, steeped in realism. But on the other hand, there was one plot device involving hacking that was so horribly contrived and just came out of nowhere, that it just seemed like the script pulled a solution out of its ass and told the audience to just accept it (keyword: Black Widow). That was the one point where the film lost me, and it soured the mood from there on out.
If you’re a fan of film music, like me, you might recognize the name of the credited composer for the film: Harry Gregson-Williams. Gregson-Williams has made a name for himself by composing the majority of the late Tony Scott’s films, but also embracing the epic genre with Kingdom of Heaven and two installments of The Chronicles of Narnia series. But, recently Gregson-Williams revealed that the majority of the music utilized in the film wasn’t his own. Mann, as it turned out, had hired five extra composers including Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Gone Girl) and Ryan Amon (Elysium) to compose more music for Blackhat while cutting out most of Gregson-Williams’ work. Mann is one of those directors, like Terrence Malick and Ridley Scott, that routinely piss film composers off for their mauling of their work because they don’t like seeing all their effort go to waste. Mann has now added Gregson-Williams to his list of disgruntled composers, joining the ranks of Trevor Jones (for The Last of the Mohicans) and Elliot Goldenthal (for Heat). As a result, the music in Blackhat works all right, but it doesn’t have much of an identity due to the multiple little ideas seemingly interspaced at random within the film. Shame too, because Harry Gregson-Williams always produces consistent work when it comes to thrillers.
If you’re a fan of Michael Mann films and you can’t abide not seeing his work on the screen, go ahead and watch Blackhat. If you want to see computer hacking in a somewhat realistic environment, go see it too. Otherwise, I can’t really say what else in this film that anyone should be drawn to. Certainly having Chris Hemsworth as the lead doesn’t hurt its targeted demographics somewhat. It isn’t the worst movie to come out in the dreaded dumping ground of January, but it probably isn’t worth your time, let alone a second showing. It’s a shaky new beginning for Mann but hopefully he finds his footing with his next endeavor. Come with your expectations tempered and maybe you can suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy Blackhat.
Final Score: 53/100