Blackhat ends a six-year absence from cinema for director Michael Mann. Throughout his career Mann has been a director of visual prowess. Even his more experimental dalliances with early digital technology, like the miss-judged aesthetic of Public Enemies, have offered up something genuinely immersive. So for his return to the big screen, having produced ill-fated TV equestrian drama Luck, he’s turning his attention to the realms of cyber-terrorism.
When a spate of high-level hacks cause a nuclear reactor to overheat and the stock market to become unstable Chinese cyber warfare officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) recognises the code being used as his and his former roommate Nick Hathaway’s (Chris Hemsworth) creation. But Hathaway is serving time so Chen, along with his sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), strike a deal with the FBI to enlist Hathaway to help them track down a hacker who could cause catastrophic damage across the globe.
From the outset Mann’s visuals capture the inherent dangers of a world existing online. Those tiny microprocessors, unseen to the human eye, can ignite in a flash of light to wreak massive damage with just a click of a mouse. Sure, at times it looks a little dated, akin to the hacking visuals shown way back in 1995 thriller Hackers, but Mann’s stall is clearly set out. A massive global conspiracy playing out in the microscopic world of online perils.
There are some questionable choices made. That in this world a man who spends most of his life starring at a computer screen dealing in ones and zeros is quite so buff as Chris Hemsworth but to get caught up in the smaller details is to miss out on the bigger picture. And no one shoots as big and grand as Michael Mann.
There’s a minimalism to Mann’s style; dialogue spoken is purely expositional, it’s as if a complicated Hollywood screenplay were stripped back to its barest of bones in order to let Mann do his thing. The result is a slickness that few other filmmakers can conjure which allows a sense of existentialism to just sit on the periphery of the story, that Hathaway is a man who lives predominantly online, or behind bars, but can’t quite grasp the repercussions of the real world.
The action is typically kinetic, Mann even finding time to inject one of his trademark shoot-outs to thunder clapping levels of visceral noise and impact. But where the film does fail is in its plot not quite grabbing the attention. There’s a lack of coherent through line tying it all together. Part of this is us never seeing the villain until the grand finale but it often feels like there were certain set pieces that needed to be included, all of which work, and it’s simply a case of getting us from one to the next.
Hemsworth does a great job of being the strong, brooding silent type, clearly all that going head to head with Loki in the Marvel Universe has taken its toll. Wang is unfortunately bland as an actor but is well supported by the always brilliant Viola Davis shooting daggers through those evocative eyes. Wei meanwhile gives a solid turn as the all-too-obvious love interest lending more than a hint of backbone to an otherwise slightly underwritten part.
In any other hands Blackhat would be a by the numbers thriller but thanks to Mann’s hypnotic style it remains very watchable.