Pushing Tin (Or, Michael Mann’s Barely Disguised Asian Vacation)
Blackhat isn’t what you’d call thought provoking, but you certainly leave with a lot of questions. “Whose idea was this?” “How can something go so wrong in so many different ways?” “Did Michael Mann and DJ Caruso switch bodies?”
It opens with a cyber attack on a Taiwanese nuclear power plant, with the hack depicted visually using a camera that traces the digital information down the cable that conveys it, on into the circuitry, down and down into the chip until it becomes binary then electrical – sort of like the Fight Club opening credits applied to a computer. Sure, why not.
In the wake of the meltdown, the Chinese government decides they need to cooperate with the US, in a bizarrely stilted scene that, if I’m not mistaken, consists of ADR-dubbed dialog that only sometimes matches the characters’ lips (you only sort of notice it when you’re busy trying to read subtitles). So they send their most snot-nosed young hotshot to the US, where he demands the authorities Sean Connery his old MIT roommate, a hacker named Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth!), out of the joint, seeing as how they designed this cyber The Rock together in the first place. And who better to play a former MIT hotshot than a six foot five Australian with a waxed chest and the body of a Viking deity?
Not that this is a criticism. You know Thor’s playing a computer hacker from the poster, so the fact that Blackhat isn’t going to be a social realist drama about regret and yearning is already outlined in the ticketbuyer’s unwritten Ts & Cs agreement. YOU MAY NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT CASTING. *Agree*
Trouble is, the more Blackhat tries to justify this character, the more ridiculous he gets. According to the expository, “revealin’-my-troubled-background-to-a-sexy-lady” scene, Hathaway has already managed to squeeze into his young life: MIT, a stint in prison for accidentally doing grievous harm to some dudes who were messing with his lady, an unsuccessful return to society after prison, followed by turning to hacking to make ends meet when no one would give a job to an ex-con, and another stint in prison for said hacking. Ergo, he’s a super hacker, a deadly practitioner of hand-to-hand combat, AND a hardened ex-con, all wrapped up in one supremely handsome hairless beefcake. Phew, no wonder the ladies all drop like flies around him!
Here is a brief list of things Hathaway accomplishes in Blackhat:
- Shanks a mercenary in the skull
- Takes out three Korean gangsters with a broken bottle
- Hacks into the NSA
- Improvises an IV from scratch and performs invasive surgery on himself
- Makes body armor out of magazines
He’s like a jacked, super handsome MacGyver with the brain of Stephen Hawking.
And what worthy adversary do they pit against this brilliant He-Hulk, you ask?? What evil scheme must he use his muscular hacking skills to foil?? Why, it’s a plot to drive up global tin prices, of course!
I thought long and hard about whether this was “spoilery” or not, but in the end I decided that it was so out of left field that it couldn’t possibly count as a spoiler. About an hour and 40-some minutes into the film, the big reveal is that the bad guy’s evil plan all along was to artificially boost the price of tin. This was a bombshell as Earth shattering as a mouse queef, and I wish I could’ve recorded the looks on the faces of the audience as they tried to come to grips with it. Look, I’m not a pacifist, I just don’t think tin futures are worth shanking anyone in the temple over. And since even the good guys don’t seem too concerned with returning investors’ money, you wonder who the real victim was (other than that guy Thor stabbed in the dome, of course).
The big challenge for Blackhat, of course, was how to make something as inherently painstaking and dull as coding seem cinematic. I can understand wanting to see how a heretofore pretty solid director like Michael Mann would handle such a thing. The way it works is, Chris Hemsworth will discover something computery, then he and his team will have to drop everything and run to some exotic location in Asia, with them using metaphors to explain the computer stuff along the way. (“We have to find a back door!”)
It’s not a terrible strategy on paper. In practice, the problem with it is that Chris Hemsworth’s American accent sounds roughly like Joe Pesci in Casino by way of John Wayne, and his girlfriend’s is even more forced and unpleasant. Thus, we have Cyber Thor and the Silly Accent Crew vs. Faceless Foreign Adversary in a battle for random commodity supremacy. Which isn’t exactly a formula for thrilling action.
Against all odds or logic, the climax still manages to come down to hand-to-hand combat, which we see Hathaway gearing up for by making body armor out of magazines, despite the fact that he has $70 million in the bank at that point, which you’d think would be enough for some kevlar.
There are glimpses that it’s Michael Mann directing this terrible mess from time to time, a pretty steadicam shot here or the way ballistics and tactics actually matter in a shootout scene there. In most movies, a cop with a pistol vs. bad guys with machine guns is a fair fight. Whereas Michael Mann is great at inserting just the tiniest bit of logistical detail, like the fact that machine gun bullets tend to rip right through stuff, hence why armies don’t fight each other with Glocks. In Blackhat, those details will be important in one scene, then two minutes later they won’t be. You can practically feel Mann tapping his watch going “Is it time for lunch yet?”
I also enjoyed the way he depicted Indonesian bystanders as animatronic “It’s A Small World” props, window dressing for a climactic gun fight, rather than as, you know, human beings, who might run away at the sight of a gun.
The nicest way to explain Blackhat is that it feels like Michael Mann realized it was a bad idea halfway into production but still had to turn in something. So after the screening, when the publicist asked “How did you like it?” And I said “It was really something!” That’s what I meant. It’s a fun bad movie to watch on an airplane.
Thanks again to commenter to Erswi for his brilliant suggestion of “Thordfish.”
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.