71-year-old director Michael Mann has been an esteemed purveyor of artfully-made thrillers since his debut Thief in 1981. His new feature Blackhat – and first since 2009’s Public Enemies – firmly follows suit. The film stars Thor’s Chris Hemmsworth as Nick Hathaway a notorious hacker serving 15 years in prison for numerous cyber-crimes. After a hacker disables a power plant in China and causes a meltown, Hathaway is pulled from prison to assist a Chinese-American investigation, led by Chen Dewai (Leeholm Wang) and Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). Hathaway agrees to help under the condition that if the terrorist is caught, his sentence is commuted. But there’s more melodramatic details, too: Dewai and Hathaway were college roommates, and Dewai’s sister Chen Lien (Wei Tang) aids with the investigation, during which she strikes up a romance with Hathaway.
Though primarily sold as a ‘cyber-thriller’ – there’s some obligatory scenes of people working on computers and some techno-jargon for good measure (Remote Access Tool, backdoor, and so on) – at its heart Blackhat is a big, globe-trotting action film. It’s the spiritual cousin to Mann’s own Miami Vice, trading in the same style of cool locales, hardened professionals, and even maybe a plot point or two. Clichés are abound in Blackhat from a silent, squinty hero, fierce confrontations, and a semi-requisite romance. The screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl doesn’t find much new to do with these clichés, but that’s not really Mann’s concern.
Sure, many of the themes and characteristics of Blackhat have been explored in greater detail and with more skill in his other films, but the director’s ability to streamline action and construct scenes help to elevate what’s really just a fairly-preposterous, James Bond-type thriller. Mann stylishly finds a a way to make hacking cinematic beyond fingers on a keyboard. The film’s bravura opening begins with a shot in the stratosphere and seamlessly descends through the sky and through layers of buildings and computers until we’re inside the cold landscapes of a microchip blown up to seem like the size of a desert. The digital photography works in the film’s favour too, giving the night skylines of the exotic locales an uncanny, otherworldly beauty while making the action more visceral and suspenseful. A number of set pieces recall the precision of Heat and that climax is a nail-biter.
The film is engrossing, to be sure, but it’s certainly flawed. Hemmsworth’s Hathaway is a bit of an empty vessel. His character is underwritten and Hemmsworth just doesn’t have the magnetism to make a character like this inherently compelling. Still he does what he can, even if his American accent is misguided and misplaced (New York? Chicago? Help me out). The cards are stacked against Hemmsworth, too, as his co-stars really sell the film. Wang and Davis in particular are incredibly charismatic – I’d be happy if the film simply followed the two of them.
Blackhat may not rank among the best of Mann’s work, but competing with Manhunter, Heat, and The Insider is a fool’s errand. Yet, even when Mann’s not on the top of his game, he’s better than most. It may feel minor, but with Blackhat, Mann delivers an assured, moody, and stylish genre exercise.