Review: ‘Blackhat’ Is a Dull Person’s Idea of a Thriller

By January 16, 2015
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Looking at the known facts before seeing the film, Blackhat could go either way. On the one hand, it’s directed by Oscar-nominated Michael Mann, a smart filmmaker with some established credibility (Heat, Collateral, The Last of the Mohicans). On the other hand, it stars Chris Hemsworth as a hunky computer hacker, and it’s being released in the studio dumping grounds of January. (Mann’s last six films all had prime spots in the summer or during end-of-the-year awards season.)

Unfortunately, Blackhat proves to be worthier of January’s taint instead of Mann’s good name. Almost perversely insistent on avoiding anything resembling excitement, and despite its globetrotting locations, this turgid dud lumbers for more than two hours before finally, mercifully, arriving at its foregone conclusion. Written by first-timer Morgan Davis Foehl, the implausible story avoids the pitfall of most hacker movies by getting the hacker away from the keyboard and out of the house, yet due to its Mann-handling it’s almost as dour and lifeless as if it were 133 minutes of typing.

Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, the best and best-built hacker in the business, currently in prison for his misdeeds. When a cyber breach causes a nuclear meltdown in China, and another one messes with the American stock exchange, Chinese intelligence teams up with the FBI (personified by Viola Davis) to get Hathaway out of the clink and onto the payroll so he can help prevent further attacks. The search for the culprit takes them to L.A., Hong Kong, and Indonesia, and along the way Hathaway essentially goes from furloughed prisoner to deputized FBI agent — joining the team on raids, carrying a gun, doing martial arts against bad guys. As one does.

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The Chinese part of the team includes a fearsome brother-sister combo, Dawai (Leehom Wang) and Lien (Wei Tang), the latter of whom provides Hathaway with a love interest. In an example of the film’s weird understanding of human behavior, Hathaway and Lien have only just started hooking up when Dawai demands to know what will happen if Hathaway breaks the conditions of his furlough and is re-incarcerated.

“Nine more years in prison?” he says. “What kind of life is that for her?” Like they’re married already, and it’s the 19th century. Mann’s tone is cool and dispassionate, even when the characters are expressing heated emotions. It’s like he doesn’t know how humans feel.

Mann occasionally does something visually interesting, like a POV shot from underneath a computer keyboard, or the inside view of a USB port, but those stimulations are infrequent. For the most part, in fact, the film is ugly to look at, shot on garish digital video that matches the grey, emotionless mood. That dullness is in contrast to the plot, which is ludicrous almost on a James Bondian level. If Mann would lighten up and embrace the fun of it, we’d all be having a better time. Things do liven up slightly for the Jakarta finale, when heroes and villains finally come face to face and the violence becomes realistic, but by then we’re past caring, really, what happens to anyone. This is what a dull person imagines a thriller is like.

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Eric D. Snider
Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.