Rated R for violence and some language.
Running time: 133 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
The notion of a terrible Michael Mann movie seems like an oxymoron. It doesn’t make any sense coming from the man behind “Heat” and “The Insider” and “Collateral.” But there’s a reason that “Blackhat,” a Michael Mann movie starring a major movie star in Chris Hemsworth, is opening in the dead of January: because it is indeed terrible.
Even Mann’s recent, minor efforts – films like 2009’s “Public Enemies” and his big-screen version of “Miami Vice” in 2006 – pulsated with some sort of energy. They buzzed with some sort of tension. He’s always been a meticulous stickler for style, so the imagery in these later films is usually enthralling even when the characters or the story aren’t. But even Mann’s signature vibe – a combination of sleekness and muscularity, gloss and grit – can’t distract from the ridiculousness of “Blackhat,” or enliven its prevailing tedium.
Let’s start with the fact that Hemsworth stars as the world’s most brilliant hacker. Let that sink in for a moment. As a bad casting choice, it’s up there with Tara Reid playing a brilliant archaeologist in Uwe Boll’s 2005 video game adaptation “Alone in the Dark” – or Hemsworth’s younger brother, Liam, playing a brilliant tech guru in the 2013 thriller “Paranoia.” This is not a slam on Hemsworth, who has a strong film presence that extends beyond playing the blonde, hulking Thor in various Marvel summer blockbusters. He showed both swagger and smarts as racecar driver James Hunt in Ron Howard’s “Rush.” He’s always had a bit of a young Brad Pitt about him in his combination of spectacular good looks with a sense of humor to match.
Here, he’s just horribly miscast. Anyone who makes his or her way in the world sitting in front of a computer screen all day is not going to look as hunky as Hemsworth. They’re probably also going to wear shirts more frequently than he does in “Blackhat.” And they probably won’t possess the bad-assery required to dominate any fistfight/shootout/name a deadly situation the way his character, Nick Hathaway, does.
He also dominates the prison where he’s serving 13 years for hacking theft. That’s where we first meet him in “Blackhat,” and where he first reveals his unwaveringly stoic demeanor. At the film’s start, we watched as a mysterious, faceless hacker caused an explosion at a nuclear plant in Hong Kong. Next, he used his malware to send soy prices soaring at the exchange in Chicago. Mann depicts the deluge of damaging data in the form of tiny white blips traveling through cables and circuitry; they begin as a trickle but turn into a tidal wave. It’s a rather cool-looking trick the first time and it kicks things off with some energetic visual imagery; from there, though, much of what actually drives the narrative consists of people sitting in front of laptops, click-clacking away furiously with their brows furrowed, as is so often the case in such high-tech capers.
This one-two punch of attacks prompts the Chinese and United States governments to work together in a partnership. Viola Davis provides a rare source of substance and a human connection as a tough FBI agent, while an elegant Wang Leehom plays the Chinese investigator who just happens to have been Nick’s roommate at MIT. Wang’s character, Chen Dawai, knows Nick is the only person who could possibly get to the bottom of who wrote this code because, as it turns out, he’s the one who wrote an early version of it.
Once Chen and Davis’ Carol Barrett arrange for Nick’s release on furlough, Morgan Davis Foehl’s script sends them on a globetrotting adventure from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta to track down the culprit before he can strike again. (What this person ultimately is after is incredibly lame and anticlimactic, but I won’t spoil it for you.) Also along for the ride is Chen’s sister, Lien, played in stiff, monotone fashion by Tang Wei. Chen says he wants her as part of the team because he needs someone he can trust; in truth, though, she’s there to serve as eye candy and a laughable love interest for Nick. Attractive as they both are individually, Hemsworth and Tang have zero chemistry with each other. The supposed romance that blossoms between them comes out of nowhere, makes no sense and is entirely needless.
More effective, though are the violent set pieces Mann stages — unsurprising, given that these are his bread and butter. His use of digital video during a fistfight at a neon-bathed Koreatown restaurant makes it feel both garish and kinetic. The pop of gunfire and metal during a lengthy shootout amid giant cargo containers provides its own tense rhythm. Such startling bursts of brutal energy provide the rare thrills in a film that more often feels like an overlong slog.
In theory, “Blackhat” couldn’t be more timely, given that it arrives on the heels of a hack attack that shook Sony Pictures to its core. But for Mann, it’ll end up being a blip in an otherwise massive career.