The biggest problem with cinematic cyber-thrillers is that computer screens are what we go to movies to escape. In short, they look like crap. Michael Mann, creator of "Miami Vice" and director of Heat, The Insider and Collateral, knows how to make even crap look noirishly glamorous (add some slow-mo, some neon...). So if anyone can make this perpetually flailing genre work, shouldn't it be him?
Sadly, no — though it's not for lack of trying. At the opening of Blackhat, Mann goes full-bore into the realm of computer graphics to visualize a piece of malware taking over a Chinese nuclear power plant — from inside the circuit board. The TRON-esque sequence is surprisingly cool, but when Blackhat returns to the realm of human beings, it doesn't run as smoothly. An intricate mystery and a handful of explosive action scenes don't make up for problems with casting, characterization and pacing, and the film's 133 minutes end up feeling like an epic eternity.
Perhaps those problems started with the very Hollywood decision to cast Chris Hemsworth, otherwise known as Marvel's Thor, as Nick Hathaway, a genius hacker serving time for bank theft. Our hero enters the action when Chen (Leehom Wang), the Chinese agent investigating the reactor break-in, learns that the culprit wielded a virus authored by Hathaway. He leans on the FBI to get the hacker a furlough, by which time the unseen cyber-criminal has already used his secret weapon to disrupt the stock market and make a bundle on soy futures.
Under the wary guidance of federal agent Viola Davis, Hathaway and Chen — who are also college buds — team up to catch a cyber-thief. The villain has minions, they soon learn, who aren't averse to using photogenic meatspace weapons like fists and assault rifles.
While I'm not equipped to judge the accuracy of Morgan Davis Foehl's screenplay, I can say it delves deeper into the mechanics of cyber-crime than predecessors such as the laughable Swordfish (2001). Rather than cracking effortlessly into secure systems from the safety of their keyboards, Hathaway and his team engage in trickery and social engineering to get initial physical access.
Because of this level of detail, parts of Blackhat work as a procedural, others as a decent caper film. And when Mann unleashes his skills on an action sequence set in Hong Kong or Jakarta, the results are thrilling.
But when the film's bodies aren't in motion, underlying problems come to the fore. Foehl and Mann seem determined to make us care about Hathaway's quest for redemption, and to establish his melancholy relationship with Chen's hacker sister (Wei Tang) as a romance for the ages. While the two look good together, no amount of neon and slow-mo can camouflage their lack of chemistry.
Furthermore, recurrent problems with dubbing and sound mixing leave us feeling lost in key dialogue scenes. As a result, none of the characters registers as a compelling presence, despite Davis' valiant efforts to give her FBI agent some grit. As for the film's antagonist, whose appearance is saved for the last act, he remains about as interesting as the phrase "manipulating soy futures" suggests. His motives are plausible, but the color and passion are lacking.
That drabness might make sense in a more rigorous and earnest cyber-crime procedural, the kind that doesn't ask us to accept Chris Hemsworth as the next Kevin Mitnick. He's likable enough, but never, not for a second, does anyone in the film embody the obsessive intensity typically seen in people who spend hours on hours coding.
Blackhat has just enough smarts and flair to make its more tedious stretches feel like missed opportunities. Perhaps some future filmmaker will hack Hollywood's cyber-thriller code with success — but for now it remains depressingly dysfunctional.