1. Blackhat plays like a parody of a Michael Mann movie, which is depressing, given that it is a Michael Mann movie. He's one of my favorite filmmakers, with such a unique, distinct, relentlessly focused vision that you forgive all his shortcomings, from the deadly self-seriousness to the existence of exactly one slightly interesting female character (Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies) over his past three decades of work. The guy is incapable of producing a shot that isn't hypnotic: You know you're watching a Michael Mann movie within a half-second. He's oppressively intense and aggressively male.
When this works, as in Heat or Manhunter or The Insider (still his best film), you leave the theater feeling heightened, as if every word and movement you make is suddenly infused with manly import—like you're walking around the world in slow motion, testosterone just wafting off you. But when it doesn't, you realize just how ridiculous it all is—that in the end, it's all a pose. This guy can sell you a pose when he has the right material. But when he doesn't, it just looks freaking pathetic.
2. And boy, does he not have the right material in Blackhat. Ostensibly, this is meant to be an of-the-moment thriller about hackers and the new front in global warfare, but the movie doesn't even have the conviction to follow that through much further than its first scenes, which feature Mann gamely (but lamely) trying to visually dramatize a virus worming its way through a mainframe. (Or something.) The hacker plot is really just a ruse, a way to get us to meet Hathaway, an imprisoned computer genius and the only guy who can stop a rogue hacker from blowing up power plants and messing with soybean futures. The movie keeps telling us Hathaway is this amazing talent, and I suppose I'll take its word for it, but the guy's primary function, as far as I can tell, seems to involve punching some people, and then running away from other people chasing him, all while dragging a female companion behind him. (You know, she can run on her own. You can let go of her hand.) Also, because he's played by Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor, he always seems to be missing a couple of buttons on his shirt. I get it: I get clammy sitting at my desk typing all day, too.
3. Anyway, Hathaway ends up running around the planet with his old MIT roommate (who now works for the Chinese government), his roommate's conveniently attractive and available sister, and Viola Davis, who no one in this movie is smart enough to realize is the only person worth paying attention to. They're chasing down the evil hacker, whose motives are murky and confusing, an ambiguity that should give the movie a little heft. After all, the only real reason I can think of to make a movie's villain a hacker—considering how inherently uncinematic it is to watch someone use a laptop—is that said villain can be nationless and motiveless; they can wreck the world simply because they can. But Blackhat doesn't even have the energy to follow that through, which means the hacker is just another boring guy with an accent who wants a bunch of money. The villain is actually so dull that it's a surprise, when we finally see his face for the first time near the end, that he's not played by a superstar actor in a surprise, uncredited cameo; we've spent the whole film chasing that guy? At least make him Matt Damon or something.
4. The movie just sort of goes on like this, with Hathaway and his cohorts and his barely-hanging-in-there shirt jaunting around Jakarta and Washington D.C. and Beijing and other places Mann can make look cool with dark lighting and his signature ruddy digital cinematography. Blackhat is basically three scenes repeating: Hathaway taps urgently on his laptop; bad guys show up and instigate a shootout; and Hathaway and his friend's sister gaze longingly at each other, all tortured and blue. Even the action scenes have a tired, rote quality to them: Mann can make look anything look compelling, but what he can't do is make any of this feel new or particularly inspired. It is not for lack of trying. He does all his usual tricks: the brooding, the glowers, the perfectly cast Hard and Weary Men supporting characters, the thumping soundtrack that briefly creates the illusion of urgency. He doesn't mail it in, which is actually sort of the problem: Mann's attempts to pump some life into this material just reveals how empty it all is.
5. Hemsworth is definitely also a problem. He's not a bad actor, necessarily: He's charming in the Thor films, mostly because they allow him a sense of a self-deprecating sense of humor. But the self-seriousness the role demands of him renders him DOA. Mann has always had his male actors pose; the glower is half the point. But it's one thing to ask Robert DeNiro or Russell Crowe to lock their jaws and stare pensively off into the distance; it is quite another to ask a guy who already does too much brooding to begin with. You find yourself spending half the movie wanting to wipe that stray stand of hair out of his eye.
Mann has always been a riveting filmmaker because he's so meticulous about his very specific vision. It has led to some of the better studio films of the last 20 years: He's a rarity, a professional, auteur-minded craftsman. But you have to give him something to work with. Blackhat is schtick in a vacuum: beneath him, and beneath the rest of us.
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