Blackhat fails to overcome a lack of story and vision
Michael Mann’s latest, ‘Blackhat,’ was mentioned as an Oscar-caliber release. The final product is a mess, an average story that was victim to terrible over-editing. Not even Thor’s abs could turn things around.
January is not a month known for successful film launches. Sure, Oscar hopefuls who squeaked in via limited release before the end of the year see wider releases, but otherwise, January is where many projects go to die. When Blackhat – a film that was at one time talked about in Oscar circles – was scheduled for January, doubt began to creep in. But it’s Michael Mann, man! Director of one of my all time favorites, Heat. Not to mention mega-star Chris Hemsworth. It has to be good, right?
It isn’t horrible, but to call it good might be a bit of an overstatement.
Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, and is a bit of an unconventional choice for a hacker; how many high-end computer types do you know that look like Thor? We find Hathaway in prison, but conveniently the only person with information that can stop a new player who has already managed to melt down a Chinese nuclear plant and compromise the New York Stock Exchange. It’s a good thing his college roommate is the leader of the Chinese side of the task force working on the investigation, else Hathaway would have never had a chance to save the day, right?
Despite the marketing campaign focusing solely on Hemsworth, the rest of the cast is solid. Smarter studio executives would have featured the amazing Viola Davis (and trade in on some of that How to Get Away With Murder buzz), but from the trailers you might miss that she’s in the movie – maybe because she was criminally underused. Leehom Wang plays the aforementioned roommate Chen Dawai, who inexplicably brings along his sister Lien, played by Wei Tang.
The real star of the movie, for better or for worse, was the director. Blackhat is decidedly and obviously Mann’s work, from the wonderfully filmed gun battles to the deliberate (plodding?) establishing and transitioning shots. (An aside: A fellow film critic mentioned in our post-viewing chatting that he’d never seen Mann’s Miami Vice: I told him it was Blackhat set in Miami). Fans of Mann’s work from Heat to Collateral easily recognize the visual and storytelling style he has brought to screen successfully before … but maybe it is a little too familiar.
I like directors with a distinctive style. I appreciate the fun in following the quirks and idiosyncrasies of how different influences can manifest themselves on screen. At the end of the day, though, stylistic choices need to be made for a reason, and not for the sake of themselves. I never really felt like Mann interpreted the story that unfolded in Blackhat through the camera lens, painting a pretty picture instead of telling a story.
Perhaps this is why the story felt so disconnected and illogical. There’s very little reason to Lien’s inclusion in the story – beyond the obvious eventual pairing with Hathaway. Her brother talks her into it by saying that he needs someone he can trust – the implication seeming to be that he can’t trust his own government, a thread immediately abandoned (except for one moment of needlessly spoken code between the siblings midway through the movie). Even more disjointed was the evolution of the Federal agent guarding Hathaway. His heroic turn later in the movie is confused by the fact that the story barely establishes any real conflict with Hathaway; though at one point our supposedly in-custody protagonist goes of on a side mission – with Lien needlessly in tow – apparently without the need to escape or sneak back in. I won’t even bother with the final action sequence that saw men knifed to death in the middle of a parade whose participants don’t react even as they must be stepping around a dead body (until, at least, the guns come out).
There are things to like about Blackhat, but nowhere near enough to make a good film. One has to wonder exactly how much of the story was left on the cutting room floor to get the running time to a reasonable length (but hey, let’s make sure we have those multiple extended CGI-rendered sequences of the electron-level inner workings of a computer). Or perhaps if we had a villain whose plot audiences didn’t need a map and a flashlight to understand (though admittedly the muscle/henchman played by Ritchie Coster is an intimidating – if one-note – presence). Unfortunately Blackhat and Mann aren’t able to get out of their own way.