Relevance Can’t Save Uneven ‘Blackhat’

by Trevan McGee on January 15, 2015

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Wow.

What happened to Michael Mann?

After a short stint in television, Mann returns to film with Blackhat, a Chris Hemsworth-starring action/espionage thriller, that takes place in the world of international hacking and cybercrime.

Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a model-handsome, super hacker doing a stent in prison. When a mystery hacker sabotages a nuclear power plant and creates a run on soy futures, it’s up to Hathaway and an international team of hackers and law enforcement officers to locate and bring down the cyber terrorists at large.

The plot is pretty straightforward in features the kind of fast and loose explanations of hacking, technology and cyber terror we have come to expect, but what makes Blackhat so memorable is Mann’s stylistic unevenness.

Mann has always been a kinetic and the visceral director. He can film a firefight with the type of immediacy and intensity few other directors are capable of, and that mastery is on display here. But so is his new bag of tricks, which include slow motion, and a constantly moving, and grainy handheld camera.

There are scenes in Blackhat that are as good as any of Mann’s earlier work, particularly Heat. A shootout on a Chinese pier is as electrifying as anything else in his career.

But there are also scenes that are maddeningly busy thanks to the handicam. A particularly frustrating scene takes place inside a Chinese restaurant.There’s a physical altercation between Hathaway, and three goons. Mann’s decision to shoot the scene as if it were from a GoPro leaves it confusing, unnecessarily busy and ultimately boring. It is the opposite of intimate or immediate, his presumed intention.

What’s more, is his decision to unevenly sprinkle handheld camerawork throughout the film. It disrupts well filmed sequences. It cheapens an emotionally endearing moment between Hathaway and his love interest Lien Chen (played by Wei Tang), and worst of all, it takes one of the best filmed sequences in the entire movie — the conclusion — and makes it jostled and ineffective.

The script by Morgan Davis Foehl is well crafted. It serves as a globetrotting cyberterrorism story before it finally settles into a caper movie. It doesn’t dig into the subculture of hacktivism or the ethics and pervasiveness of cybercrime, but it’s not concerned with it. The world is established before the title and the film just rolls with it. The characters decisions carry weight and there’s genuine dramatic tension at times.

Unfortunately, it’s the film’s conclusion that rings most hollow. Blackhat does a reasonably good job of splitting the difference between brain and brawn throughout most of its runtime, at least until the end when it gets boiled down to a street fight.

Blackhat couldn’t come out a more relevant time between the Sony hack and the continued work of groups like Anonymous and Lizard Squad, hacking has been in the news. But relevance only gets you so far. And while there are some great moments and some truly frenetic action sequences, Blackhat spends too much time being all over the place.

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