Tantalizing one moment and profoundly frustrating the next, Blackhat, the latest from director Michael Mann, would have been well served by drawing inspiration directly from the figure of its star, Chris Hemsworth. A leaner, chiseled, more cleancut approach to an achingly relevant subject might have resulted in a terrific little action flick -- and one with plenty of reverb to boot. Alas, here in this universe -- the one where Mann didn't take that tack -- we are left with a film that hints and teases at his many strengths but is partially undone at key moments.
Its setup is an amalgamation of two familiar news stories from the last few years: a nuclear reactor melts down in Asia (China, not Japan, to be exact), and it turns out a hacker is behind it all. The death and destruction in Hong Kong, and the implication that it could be easily repeated on any nation's shore, is terrifying enough that it manages to bring together American and Chinese government officials in a tense alliance to try and stamp out the threat. On the Chinese side is the shrewd Capt. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and his sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei). On the American side are mostly clueless but well-meaning FBI agents played by Viola Davis, John Ortiz and Holt McCallany.
Dawai, who grew up in New York City and attended MIT, spends the early part of the film putting his American counterparts in their place. In succeeding, he is able to pry his former college roommate Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) out of federal prison to assist their efforts in catching the nameless, faceless villain they are tracking. Hathaway is a gifted hacker who is behind bars for using those talents to steal millions. His time in prison serves as nice cover for his superhero physique. And the terms of his release ratchet up the stakes for him: Hathaway's decade-plus sentence will be commuted if he's able to aid in the apprehension of the rogue hacker.
Once Hathaway is sprung, the story takes off. This is a ragtag crew on the case, and these are some tense, awkward interpersonal relationships strained by their global pursuit. Everything the Chinese and American officials do together is tenuous; it is easy to believe their fragile partnership could dissolve with one wrong move. Hathaway, meanwhile, enjoys his freedom and the impromptu college reunion, but he seems to enjoy the attentions of his former roommate’s sister even more, further complicating his temporary release. (Note to all the Nicholas Hathaways out there: it’s probably not a great move to sleep with the one guy responsible for getting you out of prison.)
All these delicate balances being maintained amount to fun, entertaining stuff as they bounce from Chicago — where the hacker has managed to make a fortune in soy futures on the Mercantile Exchange — to Los Angeles — where a promising lead goes cold — and back to China — where the case picks up again. The jetsetting is a chance for Mann to flex one of his strongest directorial muscles. I think I could watch a whole movie of city skylines interspersed with action sequences. The jaunt to Los Angeles hearkens back to Collateral. Hong Kong is reminiscent of Miami, at least with the amount of shoreline on display. You never forget where you are in Michael Mann movie, and, at least in that sense, Blackhat fits in snugly with the rest of his filmography.
Unfortunately, the story itself loses its way — its sense of purpose and momentum — once everyone is back in China. Blackhat draws its best moments from the work of the team assembled to address the threat on hand. The conflict in the film is as much about that team as it is about the mystery man they are after. It’s no wonder then that when the team is broken up — as it is in the third act — the film sputters and stalls.
For as much as Mann gets right, he seems to get roughly the same amount wrong. This is most stark when you compare the limp third act to the appealing first and second, but the highlights and missteps are weaved throughout the film. The reactor meltdown and the panic in Chicago as soy prices skyrocket suits the story well. So too does Mann’s insistence on highlighting the high-tech and low-tech aspects of a comprehensive hack — the elegant code alongside the blunt, unclever effectiveness of paying off a security guard or plugging a USB drive loaded with malware in to a secure network. But then there are those painfully long, painfully dated sequences of hacks themselves — the cheesy graphics of a motherboard lighting up as a hacker takes over that feel straight out of the 1990s.
I feel like I say this a lot about movies in which I can see so many positives, but ultimately wind up frustrating me. Here goes anyway. Blackhat has its moments. It really does. Mann, we know, is capable of taking this type of movie to great heights. That he can not specifically take Blackhat there is baffling enough that I’d be happy to see this again in a year if he announced today he was going to take some time to fix all the things that went wrong.