Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Mann. Written by Morgan Davis Foehl. Produced by Jon Jashni, Michael Mann, Thomas Tull. Photographed by Stuart Drybergh. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross. Edited by Mako Kamitsuna, Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Stephen R. Rivkin, Joe Walker. Production designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas. Costumes designed by Colleen Atwood. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Richie Coster, Holt McCallany, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehorn.
Blackhat is a slick and solid thriller by Michael Mann, who usually aims higher and does better (Heat, Thief, Collateral, The Insider). In his first film since 2009’s Public Enemies, Mann reassembles the key building blocks that have populated much of his career: criminals, lawmen, technology, weaponry, synthesized music, gunplay, avant-garde camerawork, oppressive urban spawl and locations with unique flavor. It gets the job done with those elements in entertaining fashion, but it’s a little shallow when all is said and done.
In films past, Mann has specialized in crime stories. In Blackhat, he sets his sights on cyberterrorism, as an anonymous hacker stages elaborate (and, at first glance, seemingly unconnected) attacks on both a Hong Kong nuclear plant and on Chicago soy futures. The FBI sets up a multi-national task force and bring in a specialist to advise, who inadvertently becomes their de facto leader. That would be Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), playing a character known all too well to Mann fans: the weary alpha male professional haunted by regret. But we don’t get much of that, or much of anything, with the stock Mann character here. A federal prisoner sprung loose by a desperate bureau, Hathaway is, sadly, a thin sketch enriched simply by Hemsworth’s rock-steady and charismatic portrayal.
The other characters are even less fortunate. A Chinese brother and sister team, Chen (Wang Leehom) and Lien (Tang Wei) are instrumental team members, but they are ciphers from start to finish, and FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) shares a few personal details with the camera but mainly keeps to herself. Hathaway and Lien fall in love, but the actors don’t have much chemistry and the screenplay doesn’t have much reason for why this happens, as Mann’s instincts to strip his stories down to the bone doesn’t give us much to go on with them. Nevermind; Mann’s point this time is to deliver gritty action against an almost-ripped-from-the-headlines cyber-criminal backdrop.
The opening scene reveals a globe infinitely crisscrossed by electric lines of computer code, and more than once Mann visualizes enemy viruses traveling up motherboards like glowing, microscopic maelstroms. The film basks in the tropes of hacker movies: pages and pages of near-indecipherable code, keystrokes that determine life or death, computers that beep and whine at even the tiniest of commands. But for the most part, it is plausible and persuasive in its tech knowhow, and the cutting-edge equipment complement the old-school James Bond thrills of the movie’s globe hopping: Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Jakarta. Pleasingly, the worldwide nature of the threat and task force create a welcome sense of casual multiculturalism (making the point that computers have made the world tiny).
The film’s major set pieces (like a surprise gunfight in an airport loading zone, or a tense exploration of a radioactive disaster area) are well-made and gripping. Mann and his cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, stage the action in elaborate networks of both circuity and cityscapes; there is no director better at finding poetry within steel and concrete, fluorescents and neon. They employ unpolished digital camerawork that brings an immediacy to the moody, still shots, but the action sequences are blurry and look like they were filmed through soup. Few filmmakers have married to as divisive an aesthetic as Mann has in the past decade, and in Blackhat, sometimes it doesn’t work. But Mann takes ownership of every choice, and sometimes they pay off excitingly (one late shot, for example, which shows a sharp figure cutting through a parade that becomes a huge foreground smear, is wonderful).
Blackhat’s major flaw, regrettably, is an anticlimactic ending that doesn’t really solve as much as it should, followed by a real whimper of a closing scene. It almost feels like a setup for a glossy cyber-cop TV series, which Mann (Miami Vice, Crime Story) would be no stranger to. But, nevertheless, Blackhat’s suspense and thrills are real.