Michael Mann’s "Blackhat" offers substandard fare in a hacker trojan horse

Hollywood hasn’t always done a great job portraying the high tech computer world, but when someone like Michael Mann steps in, the results could be exceptionally interesting. It isn’t that all of Mann’s films have been unequivocal successes, but they are regularly absorbing, causing one to think about what they so long after the credits finish rolling.

Mann’s latest, “Blackhat,” certainly causes talk afterwards, but not really in a positive way. It certainly has some good ideas, but they are regularly tossed aside in favor of more traditional, brainless, action fare.

“Blackhat” stars Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway, a blackhat (bad guy) hacker. Hathaway, at the outset of the film, is in prison due to this nefarious hacking. Whether or not Hathaway got Chris Hemsworth’s physique in prison is questionable, but he has definitely been working out while behind bars. We know this because, for some reason, it is apparently important to watch him do push-ups partially up a wall.

Perhaps that last bit is foreshadowing because, and this is just one example of where things go awry, Hathaway isn’t just a hacker, he is also great with guns, exceptional at withstanding pain, and has commando-level hand-to-hand combat skills. Maybe that is all stuff he learned in prison, the film never bothers to explain, but needs him to be great at these things in order to have the action sequences work.

And that last paragraph right there, that shows you the problem with the movie – it isn’t really about computer hacking. Oh, ostensibly it is in that Hathaway has to team up with the Chinese and American governments in order to stop a bad guy hacker, but the film isn’t in any way interested in that. It’s a slick action film wrapped around the hacking.

Also important to note – Hathaway is the nicest, sweetest, kindest, best bad guy hacker you’ll ever meet. You see, he would never steal from hardworking people, and he didn’t really want to steal anyway, he was forced into it all. Mann makes a deliberate choice to have the bad guy anti-hero at the center of the film not a bad guy at all, to soften those edges until he’s a nice shiny good guy (really he is!) and has been all along. The movie would be a lot more interesting if this was really one bad hacker going after another.

Those hacking moments in the film actually work. “Blackhat” opens with a depiction, inside a computer, of a computer virus taking over machinery to cause massive amounts of devastation. It is a fun (if slightly over the top) opening and makes you fear for what real world villains can do. Mann even goes back to that type of visual later in the movie for another hacking attack. But, all too soon, it seems that the only way Hathaway and the team will succeed in beating their unknown adversary is with old-school globe-trotting, fisticuffs, and massive amounts of gunplay.

There are two problems with this approach.

First, the action sequences aren’t terribly good. They are absolutely standard, run of the mill things – the bad guys have automatic weapons and usually can’t hit the broadside of a barn no matter how many thousands of bullets they pump out, while the good guys, when they can hit anything, hit everything (it really is all or none). Additionally, for some reason, when the movie is in action sequence mode, the visuals go choppy. It isn’t a matter just of quick cutting, even when a single shot is held, it appears as though there are frames missing creating a different feel for those sequences. It doesn’t heighten the action or intensity, instead it pulls the audience out of it. Assuredly this style is purposeful, but to what intended end—other than giving it a unique “feel”—I don’t know.

Second, why have the action scenes at all? This is a movie purportedly about cyber-villainy, it would be so much more compelling if Mann and writer Morgan Davis Foehl found their solution there in the high-tech world rather than the low-tech one. “Blackhat” is very good at explaining away why the characters have to run all over the world and can’t be off-site, but each explanation is worse than the one that came before.

Sadly, the issues with the film don’t stop there either. The characters in the movie are supposed to be intelligent folks, people who are the best at what they do. For some reason, however, they keep doing dumb things which, miraculously, advance the plot in needed ways. And, when the movie can’t come up with something silly for the characters to do, it advances the plot in ways that make no sense.

Take, as a single example of this, the love story. You see, Hathaway went to college with the Chinese official, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) who is in charge of the investigation on Chinese side. That is how Hathaway comes to be involved (I won’t even get into why Chen Dawai is involved because it’s too silly). The important thing is that our Chinese official has an attractive sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), whom he insists on bringing along on the mission for skills not in evidence for most of the movie. Naturally, a romance blossoms between the sister and Hathaway. It does so with no explanation other than it being night, the view being pretty, and these being attractive people. Chen Dawai finds out about the relationship in a really perplexing way, and isn’t happy.

If you’re with me to this point, you have probably summed the biggest single problem with the movie – it all feels terribly forced. From the way Viola Davis’ government agent, Carol Barrett, goes from hating Hathaway to liking him to the various deaths needed to push the story to everything other element. They exist to push the characters into action sequences that aren’t great shouldn’t be necessary.

It is unfortunate as there at the core of it all is this interesting tale about hacking. That is the movie I want to see, and the one I wish Mann had made.

photo credit: Universal Pictures

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2 replies

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