Globetrotting computer action flick 'Blackhat' is just a bid for overseas profits

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Blackhat | C-

As imagined by first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, Nicholas Hathaway, the hero of the hackneyed hacker thriller Blackhat, is the apotheosis of gamer wish fulfillment: a genius computer coder who graduated from M.I.T., is equally lethal with a pistol or a fist, can navigate radioactive hot zones, improvise weapons from everyday household items, field dress gunshot wounds with drugstore supplies, win the undying love of a woman he only just met (and who can barely speak English) and, though more than 6 feet tall with a body like, well, Thor, seamlessly blend into a crowd of Indonesians half his height. Yeah, it’s that kind of film.

Foehl’s script struggles to achieve narrative logic, and his dull, pressured exposition does nothing to help the situation. His characters are barely sketched clichés with murky motivations in chemistry-free relationships. His dialogue is little more than bad lines of code. What few instances of suspense Blackhat manages to generate come courtesy of director Michael Mann’s skill behind the camera. But even then he can only do so much. Even with a POV shot inside a USB slot and the under side clackety-clack of a keyboard, there’s simply no way to make the act of typing an exciting instance of cinema.

Which is probably why Blackhat kicks off with a cyber attack on a Chinese nuclear power plant. Pretty scary, huh? So, how do we know it’s a cyber attack? Because Mann’s camera zooms into the electrical insides of machines, computer lines and chips, trying to manufacture action and atmosphere from a swarm of blue dots zipping through our modern technology to over take little white dots (I guess that’s bad).

The attack induces a meltdown, and the Chinese military recruits computer whiz Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) and his genius sister Lien (Wei Tang) to team up with the FBI to track down their virtual villain. When a second attack runs up soybean futures on the commodities market, Chen becomes convinced that what the team needs most is his former college roommate-turned-blackhat programmer-turned federal prisoner Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). In a shocking twist (not really) our mumbly monosyllabic hunk is offered a deal: freedom if he catches the culprit; back to jail if he doesn’t.

This sends our ragtag team on a chase from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Malaysia to Indonesia, ensuring that Legendary Pictures will make bank in Southeast Asian markets while fulfilling their obligations to producing partner (the state-owned) Chinese Film Company.

Meanwhile, Mann, clearly not interested in Blackhat’s bland and bloated storyline, composes about 15 hypnotically cool shots (nighttime urban landscapes, a deafening and visceral gunfight amid shipping containers) and ignores the fact that the rest of his movie is a jittery, grainy digital mess. A pervading sense of “who gives a shit” permeates the whole affair. I can’t recall the last time I heard a sound mix this bad in a major motion picture.

Everyone not named Viola Davis (as a snide FBI agent) is pretty terrible. Hemsworth, so charming in the Thor films, does a great imitation of a Greek statue. Wei Tang can clearly act, as long as it’s not in English, where she struggles with her phonetically learned lines. The less said of the rest of the cast, the better.

What Blackhat proves first and foremost is that Hollywood is still pretty stupid when it comes to making films about modern technology. Aside for some up-to-date jargon and sleek on-screen graphics, it’s approach hasn’t evolved past 1995’s dreadful cyber-thriller The Net.

And Mann, whose last two films were major disappointments (Public Enemy, Miami Vice), seems to have lost his passion for the art of filmmaking. Blackhat barely echoes his favorite themes — the thin line between cop and criminal, the consequences of holding fast to your principles in a world that doesn’t value principles — and shows little of the stylistic panache and lithe pacing he brought to his earlier work. It is a flavorless, corporately generated product created for the global marketplace, and one suspects that he knows it.

Blackhat is rated R and has a running time of 133 minutes.

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