January 18, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Blackhat”


BLACKHAT:  Not Even For Free – One of Michael Mann’s Worst

Michael Mann has become a filmmaking vampire; he sucks the blood out of promising projects.  His new, seemingly up-to-the-minute computer hacking thriller BLACKHAT, following his problematic Miami Vice film and Public Enemies (as well as the pilot for HBO’s Luck) is once again his trademark kind of mess, one that simultaneously feels over-thought and thrown together.  Mann’s famous painstaking attention to detail is evident here in some respects, as is his eternal theme of macho existentialism, but in others he seems to have reluctantly caved in to the requirements of his financiers, and it’s as though he decided just not to give a crap about whether the resulting mélange was a workable movie.

Mann clearly didn’t care much about the script, by first-timer Morgan Davis Foehl.  It’s an idiocy that begins with an unknown hacker getting into the systems of a Chinese nuclear power plant and a US options trading system, leading respectively to a deadly fire and a $70M+ robbery.  When Chinese cyber-investigator Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) scrutinizes the code the hacker left behind, part of it looks familiar:  it was created by his college roommate Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), now in jail for his own bank hacking.  (Hathaway does jail as only a Michael Mann hero would, alternating between dense philosophical treatises and intense bouts of exercise to keep both his body and mind hard, while organizing cyber-gifts for his fellow inmates.)  The FBI, in the person of Carol Barrett (a severely underused Viola Davis), agrees to let Hathaway loose to find the evil hacker (the “blackhat,” in jargon terms), with the carrot of a commuted sentence dangled if he’s successful.  Soon enough, Hathaway, Barrett, a guardian of Hathaway’s ankle bracelet (Holt McCallany), Chen, and Chen’s lovely sister Lien (Wei Tang), described as a “network expert” but really there for only one narrative reason, are off to Hong Kong, Malaysia and other Far East locations where moviegoing is high these days.

There’s not much to be said for Foehl’s script, which has five parts exposition for every one of characterization, and a meager anticlimax once we discover who the hacker is and what the master plan has been all along.  Still, it’s a workable enough plotline for a dumb action movie.  Mann, though, films it all with a leaden air, and the casting is disastrous.  Mann’s style absolutely requires a leading man (it’s always a man) whose stoic professionalism just barely conceals the churn of rage, regret, hope and yearning underneath–think of DeNiro in Heat, James Caan in Thief, Tom Cruise in Collateral, William L. Petersen in Manhunter, and so on.  Hemsworth may not be a bad actor–he was fine in Rush, as a charismatic racecar driver–but when he’s expressionless, he’s just a slab.  (Sadly, it wouldn’t have occurred to either Mann or the studio that Viola Davis is exactly the kind of performer that would have been an unconventionally exciting choice for the role.)  It doesn’t help that Mann insists we take the inevitable romance between Hathaway and Lien seriously, devoting a great deal of time to it, when there isn’t an instant between them that suggests they have any emotional rapport or even sexual heat, and Wei Tang has constant difficulty with her English dialogue.

Since Mann has little interest in the story he’s telling and he’s got the wrong cast in front of the cameras, he concentrates instead on his idiosyncratic visuals.  An opening sequence that tries to depict via CG imagery what happens within a computerized system when a hacked command takes it over looks like an outtake from Tron.  And Mann is still over the moon over the smeary, old-school video quality of a decade ago (the photography is credited to Stuart Dryburgh, but it’s the same look no matter who his cinematographer is), which yields a beautiful image here and there (there are some nearly surreal nighttime shots of cityscapes with candy-colored skies looming over them) but mostly calls attention to itself and looks cheap.  Mann only seems engaged in those brief sequences where men are shooting at each other, including a blitz of action in a sewer that revitalizes that cliché (the sound design of the weapons is especially good) and another on a deserted street.  Those scenes work in the abstract, but they have no dramatic propulsion behind them–they might as well be videogames.  The editing is sluggish except in the action sequences, and the music (credited to Harry Gregson-Williams, but the composer has publicly disclaimed responsibility for most of it) unexceptional synth background.

It’s been quite a while Mann made a film that connected with audiences–2004’s Collateral was probably the last, and even that followed the failure of Ali.  The dispiriting thing about Blackhat is that it’s so half-hearted and dull that when it’s over, you’re not even rooting for him to get another try.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."