I’ve been waiting for a cyber-terrorism movie to hit our cinemas, and Michael Mann answered the call with Blackhat, a brooding mystery-thriller film that forces Chinese and American authorities to join forces following an attack on a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong.
The film polarised viewers for different reasons, and I’m afraid I fall in the less complimentary camp. Michael Mann is no doubt a great director, having made the likes of classics such as Manhunter and Heat as well as strong films like Collateral and The Insider. But even his stylish, atmospheric approach, a considerable US$70 million budget, and the sexy power of Chris Hemsworth and Asian stars Wang Leehom and Tang Wei, can’t save Blackhat from being a failure.
The thing is, Blackhat is not poorly made. Based on the trailer and some word-of-mouth criticism, I had expected a hackneyed effort; a pedestrian plot, poor performances and an overall B-grade feel. That wasn’t the case; the film actually had solid production value, a sophisticated plot, and perfectly fine performances all around. The problem, sadly, is that Blackhat is just plain boring.
With the exception of the action scenes, the pace is decidedly slow, though the bigger issue is that it’s largely flat and plodding until the final act. For a 132-minute film, that’s a lot of typing on computers and chatting about hacking to sit through.
Like many others before him, Mann hasn’t quite figured out how to make typing on computers exciting. He uses special effects to show us how all the little circuits inside operate at microscopic levels, but that’s more aesthetics as opposed to something that genuinely elevates the tension. It also doesn’t help that the storyline is made to be a lot more convoluted than it had to be, sometimes making me forget what the heck the protagonists were trying to achieve.
Speaking of the protagonists, Chris Hemsworth’s character is designed against the hacker stereotype. He’s built like a brick house, can beat up three or four guys in close combat, and he’s even pretty handy with knives and guns. Not to say world class hackers like that can’t possibly exist, but it does stretch the believability factor, especially when we know very little about his background other than that he went to MIT and was put in prison for computer crimes.
The Chinese characters, on the other hand, were fleshed out better than expected. Apart from the 1980s hairdo, Wang Leehom’s US-educated People’s Liberation Army cybercrime hotshot is well-rounded and backed by a solid performance. Tang Wei, whom I have seen in anything since Lust, Caution, plays his sister, and she impresses with a fluency in English I had not expected. It’s unfortunate that her character is more or less an obligatory and arbitrary love interest for Hemsworth (you can tell this about two seconds after their eyes meet). The only other female character, an FBI agent played by Viola Davis, gets almost nothing to do except move the plot along.
The culmination of all these factors makes Blackhat a film that’s difficult to get excited about. Apparently, audiences thought the same, as Blackhat ended up having one of the worst debuts if all time, earning less than US$4 million in its opening weekend in the States despite playing on more than 2,500 screens.
There’s not enough action — at least not action that feels fresh — to appeal to people looking for a thrill ride. The grounded approach to cybercrime is not cool enough for the tech crowd. And neither the drama nor the characters are executed well enough for those looking for a more sophisticated experience. It deserves more than its appalling box office numbers, but it’s not shocking that Blackhat has underperformed for both audiences and critics alike.
2 stars out of 5