Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: "Blackhat"

Director: Michael Mann
Runtime: 133 minutes

Exceedingly timely but sloppily written, Michael Mann's Blackhat applies the director's formidable style to a stagnant narrative populated by directionless characters. The nature of digital security is a rich field for storytelling, but it doesn't always lend itself to visually stimulating cinema. Though there's talk of hacking and computer manipulation in Blackhat, the film works best when Mann goes into full-on action movie territory. With the sound of guns firing and glass shattering, one is briefly snapped out of the borderline inert character drama.

To his credit, Mann does a solid job in the opening sequence, in which he visualizes the electronic pulses that take place in computer hardware that leads to the meltdown of a Chinese nuclear reactor. Chinese agent Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) leads the investigation, and soon contacts his American counterpart, Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). But Chen has more on his mind that international cooperation. He wants his former roommate, convicted hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) furloughed from jail so that he can assist in tracking down the source of the reactor hack. In addition to Hathaway's personal ties to the basic coding used to attack the reactor, Chen also believes that it will take a blackhat hacker to stop another blackhat hacker. 

Except that Hemsworth's Hathaway never feels like much of a blackhat at all. Greyhat or even off-whitehat would be more accurate. Hathaway puts up little resistance to the terms of his furlough, and mostly just does what he's supposed to. Early on, he defines himself as the sort of man who owns up to what he's done. His political and idealogical leanings are nonexistent, leaving Hemsworth with little to work with other than a hunky hero halfheartedly pretending to be an anti-hero. The actor likely spent more time maintaining his Thor physique than the script spent developing his character.

Despite the globetrotting that follows (Chicago, LA, Hong Kong, Jakarta), dramatic inertia sets in all-too-fast once the world's most insanely ripped hacker is sent on the hunt (probation officer in tow, of course). Blackhat's plot could have been accomplished with little more than people sitting behind computers, and forgoing the travel expenses. Were there some life or some sense of wit to the characters, the needless foreign excursions would be less of a problem. But Morgan Davis Foehl's script saddles every character with dialogue that is either functional or weighed down by tech-heavy jargon. 

The diverse, international cast (including Wei Tang as Lien, Chen's sister) should be a draw, but every cast member looks bored from the get-go. It's understandable why these actors would jump at the chance to work with a director like Mr. Mann, but the regret at signing onto this script is often palpable. Early on, one can catch glimpses of the actors latching onto the tiniest moments that allow them to be genuinely expressive. Sadly, those moments evaporate at a frightening speed. Viola Davis, who injects such vivacity into her roles merely by showing up, has never looked less engaged with her material. Hemsworth and Tang don't fare any better with their tacked-on, passionless romance. Their fling best summarizes Blackhat: stagnant, devoid of energy, and unconvincing. 

Were Blackhat striving to be a big, over-the-top action thriller, the story and these characters could have worked. But, because they're caught between mainstream storytelling and vaguely existential aspirations, the film merely lumbers along for a needless amount of time (133 minutes). The film is so heavy, and so dour that it's neither engaging as a serious-minded thriller nor as a gloriously overwrought tough-guy action flick.

Technical aspects are hit and miss as well. The film works best when it's reliant strictly on visuals, and not actually moving the plot forward. Standout sections include a brutal gunfight near a Hong Kong harbor, and a tense expedition that involves navigating through the destroyed nuclear reactor. Stuart Dryburgh's grimy digital imagery is at its best here, lending a haunting immediacy to footage of both action and ghostly stillness. Dryburgh handles the expected Mann images (modern skylines at dawn or sunset, speed boats piercing through waves, etc...) beautifully, but the things get iffy in some of the other action scenes. The first fight, set in a cramped cafe, looks like it was shot on an iPhone camera. Sound work is puzzlingly scattershot, with the ends of sentences often dropping out completely. Mann's slicing and dicing of Henry Gregson Williams' score is solid, though a bit too reliant on the same menacing tones. Editing keeps the action as clear as it can, though the smeary, low-res quality of some of the photography is sometimes too much to overcome. 

Grade: C-

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