There is no doubt in my mind that Michael Mann knows how to make a movie. Nobody shoots a gloomy cityscape with as much clarity and mood as well as he. The way he has embraced digital filmmaking is some of the strongest evidence that even the crisp, intangible lens it offers can still be downright cinematic. Mann can take a shot of nothing and make it look like everything. Technically speaking, Blackhat is Mann working at the top of his game. Sadly, the movie still sucks.
Blackhat tells the story of a cyber attack that causes a meltdown at a Chinese nuclear facility and the teams of law enforcement, both American and Chinese, dispatched to find the culprit. As movie rules dictate, these well-trained officials can’t possibly chase the hackers alone, and must enlist the help of a convicted super-hacker, played with all the depth and nuance of a summer sausage, by Chris Hemsworth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Mr. Hemsworth, but I think we can all agree that his accent work isn’t very strong. Why Mann chose to have Thor (can I call him Thor? I’m going to call him Thor) speak with the diction of Stallone using what I presume to be a New York accent, I can’t be sure, but most of his dialogue is unintelligible.
Thor receives a deal which pretty much guarantees that his cooperation not only grants him freedom, but does so immediately. He has some supervisors that watch over him for oh, about 3 minutes, and then we’re off to the races! Thor and gang zip around the globe chasing hackers and shooting guns and typing quickly in keyboards while yelling things like, “We have to hack into the mainframe to utilize encryption converters! I can do it, but it’ll take time, dammit!”
Every character in this movie is the type of character that exists only in movies. This is normally not a problem if the script treats them as such. It does not. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Blackhat‘s script was still being written long into production. None of the events occur in a way that is in tune with the audience. At no point did I get the feeling that I was along for the ride. At no point was I given enough information to move with the plot. When the characters decide, “we have to fly to China!”, it never occurred to me whether this was a good or bad decision, because all I could do was think, “well if the movie says China, let’s go to China.” This isn’t fun. Each and every revelation that our crew learns through their long, meandering mission doesn’t feel like a revelation at all. When Thor discovers the real motive for these cyber attacks, there is no “eureka” moment, but rather a, “what? Ok I guess that’s something,” moment. I still could not tell you what the villain’s plan is, but I couldn’t be bothered to care either.
Speaking of villains, in what case is it ever a good idea to introduce your villain 10 minutes before the end of a 2.5 hour movie? Especially when the villain serves absolutely no function up until this point, finally appearing seemingly just as a person for Thor to fistfight. Did I mention that computer hacker Thor is supremely good at hand-to-hand combat? Well he is, and it’s a good thing too considering that his hacking skills, as far as I can gather, don’t do much by way of helping to catch the bad guys.
Here’s a bit of dialogue that elicited laughter from much of the theater. Allow me to set the scene. Two agents, one male and one female, are sitting in a car together, brooding, as Mann players are apt to do. Mind you, we know nothing about either character outside of them both being cops, and both not seeming to be very happy:
Male cop: I’m gonna ask you a personal question, and you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.
Female cop: ::broods:::
Male cop: Who did you lose in 9/11?
Female cop: My husband
Um, what? What just happened? Is that supposed to be edgy? Is this supposed to grow our characters? Because I still don’t know their names. It was such a jarring exchange, handled with a complete lack of forethought that it came off as uncomfortably hilarious, and trust me when I say that I can see how unfunny it sounds. It’s about context, and by this point in this weird circus of moods, the lion is eating the tamer and no one cares.
There is one very very good gun fight, another staple of Mann’s, and despite the fact that it is kicked off by cinema’s most predictable car explosion (I even whispered ‘boom’ to my friend a good 10 seconds before the movie indicated that I was supposed to be shocked), it’s a perfect showcase for why I say that Mann is one of the most technically proficient directors working today. But without a decent story, it’s just an empty action sequence.
If we were to cut out every sequence of vehicles departing and arriving at various set pieces, we could shorten this slog of a movie by 30 minutes. If we cut out cheap looking “inside the computer” sequences, we could lose another 10 and the movie would be infinitely better for it.
Somewhere in this hodgepodge of mood and poor choices is a 90 minute thriller that is absolutely captivating. Better yet, if this were a 3 part HBO miniseries written by Mamet and directed by Soderbergh, it might be a masterpiece. But as it is, it’s a melodramatic chore that packs little to no punch. It sure is a beautifully shot movie, but — what’s that saying about shiny excrement?
Somebody give Michael Mann a solid script, please! He can make a movie look great … but someone else should provide the voice.
Blackhat opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.