Michael Mann loves a good robbery. The planning, the execution, the getaway – clean or otherwise – are all a constant source of fascination for the director who rendered heists in Heat and Public Enemies as works of precision artistry. In Blackhat, he shows topical appreciation for the craft of the computer hacker.
After all, leaping onto a bank counter wielding a machine gun now seems like the old hat way of getting the job done. The digital age now makes it a matter of in and out with a flurry of keyboard taps. The black hat of the title – referencing how to spot a bad’un in a Western – engineers a nuclear disaster and a spike in soy futures with the entry key as his trigger.
A fragile alliance between the United States and China seeks to safeguard their trade agreements while keeping their respective cyber security cards close to their chests. Unfortunately, for all its contemporary resonance and aesthetic pleasures, this is a dramatic misfire from Mann.
It lays serious claim to being a film about the nitty gritty of hacking. The film kicks off with a microscopic view of malicious data surging along fibre optic cables, quickly ticking the box requiring on-screen hacking to have visual pizzazz. Morgan Davis Foehl’s screenplay goes on to ground proceedings by citing remote access tools, encrypted IPs, and rogue programs with purpose. Characters then remark upon the inelegance of certain blocks of coding and discuss the repercussions of digital warfare with unwavering solemnity. Mann likes telling stories about experts in their chosen field and here is no exception.
As thematically pertinent as Blackhat is, however, characterisation is a corrupted file. Chris Hemsworth’s brooding hacker Hathaway is an enigma wrapped in a collection of cotton shirts. All we get is he’s intelligent and knows how to get a bit handy, crucially lacking any of the charm of Mann’s previous protagonists or Hemsworth himself. In an attack of happenstance, Wang Lee Hom’s Chinese military officer is Hathaway’s former college roommate. As such, he’s simply a device to bring the latter into the action.
Tang Wei as his security expert sister is tarred with the same brush. Quite why she feels any romantic connection to Hathaway is a mystery. Maybe it’s those cotton shirts. Elsewhere, a valiant Viola Davis raises the wryest of smiles as her FBI agent brings a standoffish banker to his knees, but she is the exception to the po-faced rule.
At the point where interest in Hathaway and co. begins to sag, violence erupts with all of Mann’s trademark lack of concern for your ear drums. Yet when Hathaway turns general action hero and picks up a gun, the film’s cyberterrorism pretensions go up in smoke. Action sequences discombobulate the senses with frayed camerawork and a desire to let off as many rounds as possible. Whereas in Mann’s previous efforts this was a positive boon, here it serves to distort proceedings.
Hathaway’s game of one-upmanship with the cyber antagonist descends into a Bond-light jaunt hinging on just when exactly he’ll get the baddie in his gun sight. By the time the film reaches its ponderous Jakarta-based conclusion, your patience will have been spent.
The accumulative malaise is almost too much for the sublime visuals to salvage. Shooting entirely in digital, Mann portrays electrified cityscapes with typical flair. A Hong Kong section in particular sees lights bounce off skyscrapers and neon signs bleed into bustling streets in intoxicating fashion. The cinematic verve is unmistakable, but there is only so much presentation can do when the content is so immaterial. As a result, Blackhat is pretty dull with the emphasis on pretty.