Review: Michael Mann’s stupid cyberthriller ‘Blackhat’ strands Chris Hemsworth utterly

There are moments where a talented director makes a film so bad that you feel like you might need to go back to watch their earlier films just to make sure you weren't wrong when you liked them.

“Blackhat” is the worst film Michael Mann has made since “The Keep,” and I think given the choice between the two, I would happily watch “The Keep” again first. I am baffled by almost every moment of “Blackhat,” and I'm struggling to make sense of where something goes this wrong. I haven't read the spec that Morgan Davis Foehl sold to the studio, but I know that Mann felt strongly that he deserved a co-writing credit on the film, one that the WGAw denied him after an arbitration. I'm not sure who to blame for the truly unfathomable narrative choices throughout, but I have to give Mann the final credit for creating a 135 minute film that didn't feel a second less than five hours long.

When I think of the highlights from Mann's career, I think of the masterful way he handles mood and tension, and there are moments from his career that are as good as modern filmmaking gets. So when I think of everything that's wrong with “Blackhat,” it is confounding because it seems like so many of Mann's strengths are not only not on display here, but like this film almost refutes that any of those things ever existed in the first place.

The film tells the story of what happens when a hacker causes a major accident at a nuclear facility in China, then creates an artificial run on soybean futures on the international market. Desperate to find the person or the group responsible, the US government works with the Chinese government and ends up turning to another hacker who has been in US prison. Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is the kind of hacker who only exists in movies, as adept in a gunfight or hand-to-hand combat as he is in breaking into the NSA's mainframe, and when we meet him, he's getting in trouble for giving everyone in his cell block an extra $900 in their accounts for the prison store. The thing is, if Hathaway was the only character who I felt like didn't make sense, then that would be one of those “it's a movie” things. But every single character in this film feels like they could only exist in movies, and more than that, like they could only exist in ridiculous movies. Structurally, this is sort of a riff on “The Rock,” but it makes that film's script (which I've always considered deeply flawed) look like Robert Bolt's work on “Lawrence Of Arabia.”

The thing that I find really disturbing about the movie is that Mann's films have always had this amazing sense of verisimilitude. I don't know if I believe that “Heat” would actually happen the way it plays out in the movie, but when you're watching it, it feels like reality. That gunfight in the streets of LA is terrifying because it doesn't feel like movie gunfights. Even when he does something like “The Last Of The Mohicans,” which is big and romantic, he benefits enormously from the way Daniel Day Lewis underplays against that gorgeous photography and that big beautiful score.

Over the last few movies, though, Mann's aesthetic has gone through a pretty radical change. “Ali” was the last of his classically styled films, and it was drop-dead gorgeous, whatever you think of it dramatically. Mann may be one of the biggest name directors to have embraced digital filmmaking wholeheartedly, and he was certainly one of the earliest. There's something about the look of “Collateral” that really works for me, and it looks more like the way LA actually looks than most movies that are shot here. I also liked the script for “Collateral,” and it felt like the last time Mann started production with a script that was locked down and solid on the page. I think there are things to like about both “Miami Vice” and “Public Enemies,” and plenty of things that don't work as well, but they both represent a shift into something more formless, where Mann's longtime interest in mood suddenly overwhelmed even a passing interest in narrative.

In the case of “Vice,” that felt appropriate. After all, the TV show was known for being far more interested in the surface of things than in in-depth writing. It was an attitude, and Mann's movie, in its best moments, got that right. There's a loneliness and a sorrow and a pain running under everything in “Vice” that feels like it captures something essential about the show. “Public Enemies” is a case of a film's aesthetic almost willfully battling with the text of the film. I don't think you have to shoot any subject a particular way, but there's something about period movies that is deeply ingrained in our minds, and “Public Enemies” flew in the face of that. Even so, even with some of the things that really deeply don't work about that film, there's an emotional charge that the ending carries, thanks largely to the work by Marion Cotillard and Steven Lang in those final scenes. That emotional charge is enough for me to forgive some of the movie's other faults, and that's typically how it is for me with movies, especially if they're the work of someone who has demonstrated repeatedly that they can produce work of substance. I like movies more than I dislike movies. I look for the good in films because that's how I'm wired.

So when I say that I found “Blackhat” to be borderline intolerable, that is no small thing. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film, the actual attack on the power plant, I got that sinking feeling I got in every single movie about hackers made in the '90s. There's this tendency to take what is a fairly dull activity, visually speaking, and crank it up to some absurd level to overcompensate, and Mann spends a fair amount of time swooping in and out of phone lines and routing boxes and microchips and computer terminals. It's a whole lot of busy to basically show a switch getting thrown, but at least there's some sense that Mann's got a plan for how to show you this stuff. The attack happens, and then we start to meet the major players who are going to be part of the investigation, and despite a parade of interesting actors like Viola Davis, John Ortiz, Wei Tang, and Leehom Wang, nothing clicks. There is a stiffness to every scene, almost like Mann's forgotten how to stage a scene. Maybe it's the language issues, but it seems to go deeper than that. There's not a move in the film that isn't telegraphed before it happens, and the “mystery” that Hemsworth unravels is resolutely stupid, and there's nothing that Hemsworth does at any point in the movie that plays for the audience. His hacking skills are silly, and when he swings into action, it makes you wonder who trained this guy who is supposedly just a computer expert. Why does the government have to break this brilliant technical wizard out of jail to help them if everything's going to boil down to a sharpened screwdriver and a gun?

When Sony initially pulled “The Interview” in December, I made a crack on Twitter about how Universal should have moved this into that release date because obviously the film was about something that is timely and genuinely scary. But now that I've seen it, I see that I was completely wrong. If there had been a good movie about hacking and the way our information and our identities and our money have all been reduced to digital information that can be traded and stolen and erased by people who live completely outside the law, that would have been timely. But this? This doesn't feel like it has anything to tell me about why this is the world we live in now or what we should be afraid of or what's actually possible. For all of the detail the movie throws at you, it is about as realistic as “Superman III” when it comes to computers, and Hemsworth is just as realistic a hacker as Richard Pryor was in that film.

“Blackhat” is sloppy, it's slack, and it simply doesn't work. There's an important act of violence, an explosion, and the way it's staged, I burst into laughter. Totally involuntary, and I wasn't trying to ruin the viewing for anyone around me. It's just so absurd, and such a hack move in both concept and execution that the laughter was the only possible reaction.  I'd act shocked, but when this got pushed off to a January release date and then basically slipped into theaters quietly like this, the studio sent the message loud and clear that they didn't have any faith in it. They were right, but it makes me wonder what story they thought they were telling and what film they thought they were going to get. Whatever it was, “Blackhat” is a staggering misfire by a whole bunch of talented people, terrible in a way that only a  good filmmaker can accomplish, and it kicks off 2015 by setting the bar very, very low. Things can only get better from here.

“Blackhat” is in theaters on Friday.