Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Michael Mann was one of the more interesting filmmakers kicking around Hollywood. His visual style was electric, transforming pulpy subject matter into art through visual sensation. Then he started making movies at a slow Kubrickian rate and his unique style got swallowed up by the studio standard. Now a Michael Mann movie doesn’t feel quite so special anymore. However, a certain level of excitement still accompanies the release of a new Mann film, especially when he picks interesting subject matter. What’s his new movie about again? Cyber-terrorism? Oh… never mind.
Yep, thanks to the NSA and Sony email leak scandals, hackers are once again blockbuster villain fodder, and unfortunately they haven’t gotten any easier to take seriously. This time, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a hacker who was so good that he had to be locked up like Hannibal Lecter. Then a new super evil hacker shows up and starts wreaking financial havoc with a keyboard. The government cybercrime team led by Viola Davis in a silly wig has no idea how to stop this new threat. At least, not until one of them notices that the new hacker’s code was ripped off from his old college roommate (you guessed it, Hemsworth). So, Thor gets released from prison to help stop the new hacker’s reign of terror. He does so the only way he knows how, by standing around a series of laptops with his castmates discussing how thrilling and terrifying typing into a computer is. Eventually, some stuff blows up and thank god, because you’ll be quite sleepy after all the technobabble and vigorous typing montages.
‘Blackhat’ falls into Mann’s pet theme of heroes and villains who fight each other with grudging respect. It’s also beautifully shot in crisp cinemascope compositions, features a few solid action set-pieces, and is filled with super slick menswear. So, it’s certainly a Michael Mann movie on the surface and there’s fun to be had on that level, enough that Mann apologists might even consider rallying behind the movie.
However, they really shouldn’t do that. I know it’s tough. When you’re starving for a Michael Mann movie, you’ll hungrily lap up anything and say, “Well, it’s not ‘Heat’, but…” However, this is not a time for such support. ‘Blackhat’ just might be the worst movie that Michael Mann has ever made. Beneath the soothing surface is a big black hole cobbled together with tedious plot devices from 1990s thrillers. The script by Morgan Davis Foehl, a first-time writer and “Additional Editor” of ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry’, is rather pitiful. Sure, the cyber-crime sequences are slightly more realistic than, say, ‘Hackers’, but beyond that ‘Blackhat’ deserves to be discussed in the same breath as that ’90s joke. The plot is dull, the characters are indistinguishably drab, the dialogue is flat, and the running time is interminable. Mann has to whip out all of his trademark tricks and Thor dressed in low neckline shirts in a desperate attempt to distract viewers from the emptiness of his latest opus. It doesn’t work.
It doesn’t matter how softly the actors speak or how important the score and cinematography makes their words feel, ‘Blackhat’ is silly at best and stupid at worst. Admittedly, the film has one gearshift action scene that kicks off the third act, which is pretty damn impressive. Regardless, I can’t in good conscious suggest that anyone should suffer through the 90 or so minutes it takes to get there. The setup is simply too dreary and boring for that meager payoff, and the climax that follows is so ridiculous that it drags the movie back down to the depths after a single visceral peak. By the time that viewers are supposed to believe that a man who looks like Thor can disappear on the streets of Indonesia by wearing a baseball cap or sunglasses, ‘Blackhat’ has jumped the shark into absurdity.
If Mann had even a tiny sense of humor, he possibly could have passed off ‘Blackhat’ as self-parody, but he doesn’t. Instead, the joke plays out unironically and rather tragically. The movie is the work of a filmmaker who has lost the pulse of the general public and desperately wants it back. To say he failed this time is an understatement, but I wouldn’t write him off entirely just yet. Mann could still surprise us with one more late-career masterpiece. The only trouble is that given his schedule, it will likely be five years before he even attempts to make up for this mess. Hopefully, his next movie is worth the inevitable wait, because ‘Blackhat’ sure wasn’t.