As a shadowy hacker causes a nuclear meltdown at a reactor in China, the camera dives into a series of wires and flies through the microscopic highways of a computer chip, lights indicating the 1s and 0s that are altered to trigger the disaster. It's a cheesy CGI moment reminiscent of something you'd see in a 1990s movie about hacking, and director Michael Mann uses the gimmick twice in the first ten minutes. Things do not get better from there.
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis
A Chinese computer expert (Leehom Wang) teams with an American FBI agent (Viola Davis) to track the man responsible for the crime. The only man who can help them is Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a convicted hacker serving a thirteen year prison sentence. Pulling Hathaway from prison, the gang begins trying to unravel artifacts of code left behind in order to pinpoint the identity of the hacker before he strikes again. This is essentially Mann's attempt at a Bond film, but without a lead character as interesting as 007 or a villain as captivating as any the Bond franchise produced. Mann is hobbled by a terrible script and actors who can't elevate the material, so Blackhat turns into a cluster of middling action scenes loosely connected by tedious dialogue and long stretches of the film that drag on for what feels like an eternity.
Mann, a visual stylist who directed what I consider to be the singular most iconic film set in Los Angeles at night with 2004's Collateral, hasn't directed a movie since 2009's Public Enemies, and he seems to have forgotten how to stage even the simplest dialogue scene. This is a hideously ugly film, with nauseating cinematography that utilizes shaky cam at every opportunity and tight close-ups that fail to establish a coherent sense of geography, and it feels like the once-masterful storyteller has utterly lost his touch. If this is an example of what Michael Mann movies are going to be moving forward, I don't ever want to see one again.
Not helping matters is how Hemsworth is miscast as a super-intelligent badass. I generally think he's a passable actor, but watching him try to sound smart here just makes me appreciate how good he is at executing the blustery Shakespearean bravado of the Thor films. Blackhat also features what could end up being the least convincing love story of 2015. I realize we're currently only 14 days into this year, but I'm comfortable saying that this film will at least vie for that title come year's end, if not take it outright. Hathaway's relationship with a Chinese agent's sister is about as forced and cliche as it gets, and Wei Tang's performance as the love interest is so dull and disinterested that it removes all of the emotion from the pair. With no emotional stakes, the audience doesn't care what happens and can't get invested in the relationship, leaving us with nothing to do but sit there and hope that one of them dies so the story can get moving again.
In a film overflowing with problems, pacing may be Blackhat's biggest. It runs an excruciating two hours and fifteen minutes - not a terribly uncomfortable runtime for another film that actually deserves that length, but in this case, it's almost unbearable. There's no reason this film had to be this long, and it almost feels as if Mann was given an arbitrary length he had to hit and then stretched the footage as much as possible in the editing room in order to achieve it.
On multiple occasions, an exchange between two characters will come to an end, but the camera lingers on one subject as he crosses a room or heads for the door, only to cut to the next scene before he ever reach that destination. The film is full of those kind of baffling editing choices, and it's mostly shot in excruciating close-up and often features distractingly out-of-sync dialogue, so I couldn't even fully engage with the few conversations I actually had some interest in following. The sound mix is all over the place, with some lines toned down to a whisper while the sound effects of gunshots and explosions are so loud they threaten to blow out the speakers. Even the score - which the credited composer recently said contains very little of the work he did for the film - is overbearing, headache-inducing nonsense.
Blackhat is bad, but the reason I'm so disappointed and frustrated with it is because Mann - hailed by many to be one of our great modern filmmakers - has shown that he's capable of far better work than this. It always pains me to see a film with unrealized potential, and there's a version of Blackhat that's a complex, globe-spanning mystery that competently tackles the very real threat of how technology can be used against us by those who manipulate it for their own gain. This is not that movie.