Blackhat - No substance, but heaps of style
Michael Mann's thriller is slick but problematic, says Paul Whitington
Since breaking through as a film director in the mid-1980s, Michael Mann has ploughed a lonely and distinctive furrow. He's an odd mix between an auteur and a mainstream commercial film-maker, and while it's not always easy to find thematic clarity through lines in the stories he chooses, his visual style is absolutely his own.
He likes urban and industrial backdrops, either very low or extremely high lighting, terse, morally conflicted characters and beautifully orchestrated gun battles that display the true, deadly terror of firearms.
All these qualities are present in Blackhat, a slow conspiracy thriller that's full of lovely moments that never quite manage to coalesce into something special. That's partly the result of a grandiose and rather hackneyed storyline, but also due to a piece of dubious casting. Australian beefcake Chris Hemsworth is pretty good in action films and superhero yarns but has dead eyes, seems easily confused and may not be a fan of chess. Yet in Blackhat we're asked to believe he's a computer genius and hacker who's serving time for swindling tens of millions of dollars.
Nick Hathaway is cooling his heels in a Pennsylvania jail when he's approached by the FBI with a most unexpected offer. A 'black hat' (a malign and nihilistic hacker) has infiltrated the running systems of a Chinese nuclear plant and caused a near meltdown. The same cyber terrorist has hacked into the New York Stock Exchange and caused a run on soy futures. Lord knows what the invisible enemy's target will be next, and Hathaway has been identified by Chinese policeman Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) as the only man capable of discovering the culprit's whereabouts and identity.
Chen and Nick go way back, having roomed together at university, but FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) worries that Hathaway might be up to no good, especially when they chase an electronic trail to Hong Kong. Nick is fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet, and given promises of amnesty if he can find out who's responsible for the attacks. But even he is perplexed by the complexity and sophistication of the hacker's work, until a tantalising lead takes them to Hong Kong and Malaysia.
No Michael Mann movie would be complete without a steamy and probably doomed love affair, and Nick tests his old comrade's patience when he starts fooling around with Chen's beautiful sister Lien (Tang Wei). They sweat and sigh lovingly to the strains of moody synthesisers in the film's least interesting scenes, but for the most part Blackhat is a stylish and skilfully assembled thriller that only begins to seem faintly ludicrous towards the end.
Viola Davis is the only actor of note on display, but more than makes up for the shortcomings of her colleagues in the few scenes she gets to boss. But then Michael Mann films aren't usually about actors, who often end up getting lost in his grand and sweeping set pieces.
In Blackhat, he and his special effects people devote considerable energy to dramatising a rogue piece of code's journey through cables and computers, but this is not interesting, and the best parts of the film are its brilliantly handled action sequences.
Most impressive of all is a shoot-out that follows a car bomb attack in a quiet Hong Kong street, a sequence that sounds and seems pleasingly like Mann's most famous film, Heat. No other director is as good at making you realise what it takes to stand still and shoot while being shot at, and in Blackhat he proves that in this regard he hasn't lost his touch.
He tells his story pretty well too, but sadly it's full of holes and the villain, when we finally get to meet him, feels like something out of Bond. But Blackhat's biggest problem is the miscasting of Mr. Hemsworth, who fights like a dream but seemed even more confused by all the computer stuff than I was.