The director Michael Mann has many, many devoted fans, and I do not particularly count myself among them. Though I consider The Insider to be among the most underappreciated films of the last 25 years, Heat left me cold—yes, you may stop reading now if you wish—and I thought Collateral wound up in default. All three, however, along with his superior The Last of The Mohicans, were at least memorable big-screen expansions of the style and sensibility that he began developing on television so many years ago.
Alas, since those days Mann seems to have entered an era of contraction, with the forgettable Public Enemies, the best-forgotten Miami Vice, and now, the I’m-forgetting-it-already Blackhat. Though his fans will find consolations scattered throughout, this lumbering cyberthriller seems less like an actual Michael Mann film than like the work of an inferior imitator.
The movie begins with a catastrophe at a Chinese power plant: a malicious little worm of code has wriggled its way into the system and shut down turbines in the cooling pool, leading to a reactor breach and the threat of meltdown. The young Chinese cyber-security official placed in charge of the investigation (played by Wang Leehom) requests, and is granted, a joint investigation with an American counter-terrorism official (Viola Davis). To round out his international action team, he chooses, with immaculate implausibility, his younger sister, Lien Chen (Tang Wei), whom he brings along because he “needs someone he can trust”; and his former college roommate, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). Complicating matters, Hathaway is a felon currently serving an extended sentence for stealing tens of millions of dollars from a series of banks. (Not to worry, we are later reminded with simple-minded satisfaction: He only stole from banks, not people.)
Hemsworth has evinced genuine star power over the course of two Thors, an Avengers, a Cabin in the Woods, and the criminally underrated Rush. But he is flat-out awful as the M.I.T.-certified tech genius Hathaway. (Nothing against the erstwhile Asgardian, but you don’t hire him principally for his coding.) Hemsworth grunts and grumbles his way through the role in what seems to be a foreigner’s idea of a tough-guy American accent (the actor is himself Australian), a parody of Kurt Russell doing his longstanding parody of John Wayne.
Tang is also a gifted actress (as she demonstrated in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution) but she fares no better in a woefully underwritten eye-candy role. Though in theory a computer expert herself, we see less of her character at a keyboard than in Hathaway’s bed, the two having fallen for one another almost immediately, in one of the laziest and most chemistry-free onscreen romances in years. “I believe you a very strong man, a very smart man,” she tells him through heavily accented English, in a scene that feels about 50 years out of date.
The less said of the plot, the better. Hathaway and Chen track their cyber-terrorist from L.A. to Hong Kong to Jakarta in a cat-and-mouse game that doesn’t bother introducing the mouse until the final reel. There are foot chases and shootouts—the latter conducted with confusing geometry at intolerable volume—and noble sacrifices and perhaps the single least surprising surprise car explosion in cinematic history. And while it’s all given Mann’s customary wash of testosterone, at no time does it feel as though the director’s heart is in the project.
And “project” is exactly what Blackhat feels like, a film so calculated in its commercialism that it feels as though it may have been spit out of some Hollywood algorithm for profitability. A particular low point in the film is the ham-fisted product placement in which Hathaway states his specific need for an Android phone. But an ever-present and far more depressing feature is the movie’s naked pandering for overseas box office. There is of course nothing wrong with films that feature an international cast and Far East settings—except when those appear to be the entire economic rationale undergirding them.
As we saw with the middling Pacific Rim, the last, as-awful-as-expected Transformers installment, and the almost indescribably idiotic Lucy, if there’s one thing worse than appealing to the lowest common American denominator, it’s appealing to the lowest common global denominator. The typical symptoms are all in evidence here: dialogue that seems written for optimal ease in subtitling; emotions so loud, flat, and emphatically stated that they cannot possibly be misunderstood; the erasure of any hint of political controversy (the higher-ups in Chinese intelligence actually behave better than their American counterparts); and, of course, as many easy-to-translate explosions and eruptions of automatic-weapons fire as can be comfortably accommodated.
There was a time when Michael Mann helped set the agenda for action filmmaking. Now, it seems, he merely succumbs to it.