Michael Mann's one of my favorite directors and has made more than enough classics to earn him the benefit of the doubt, but hacker thriller Blackhat is not Mann anywhere near his best. The script is packed with cliches, and the film is cast with actors utterly lacking in chemistry. Expertly staged action scenes, a Mann staple, are present in spades, but when the characters taking part in them make such little impact, those scenes aren't enough to save the film.
In an effective opening sequence, Mann starts in the upper atmosphere, suggesting a limitless breadth of targets, before zooming in on a Chinese nuclear plant. His camera zooms in further to a single microchip, which is directed to fail, and the plant suffers a meltdown. Upon investigation, young Chinese military officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) recognizes the foundation of the hacker's handiwork as something he crafted with a college roommate in the US, and he sets out to recruit that former roommate to help them catch the cyber terrorist. The only problem is... he's in jail. Chris Hemsworth stars as the jailed hacker Nicholas Hathaway, sprung by the FBI to team up with Chen and the FBI to track down the terrorist before he can strike again.
The bland characters hamstring Blackhat. There just isn't anyone to really grab onto. Hathaway's a loose cannon, frustrated after so many years in jail, but Hemsworth isn't the frayed nerve that he might have been. Instead, he's so competent at every task thrown at him, that he never approaches vulnerability. For old friends, it sure seems like Hathaway and Chen have never met before. To make matters worse, Chen brings his engineer sister to tag along, offering help and the possibility of a romantic object for Hathaway, who can now have no chemistry with two characters instead of one. The typically strong Viola Davis plays the overseer of the operation, but there's very little opportunity to make an impact. Tragically, she's also given an awful character reveal pertaining to 9/11 that hopefully suggests a sell-by date of that particular backstory builder. If Chris Christie looks silly every time he invokes it, so do screenwriters and the characters forced to recite their words. The only standout character is Richie Coster playing a dead-eyed henchman. After his series-stealing turn in True Detective as a perpetually drunk and corrupt mayor, Coster's 2015 has been dedicated to being the one shining character in otherwise-disappointing works.
Mann has dealt in cop-criminal tropes to fantastic effect in Heat. In that far better film, it was easy to overlook some of the more hackneyed aspects of the plot due to the indelible portrayals of much of the cast. Alas, Hemsworth is no de Niro. The general lack of likable characters makes the lazy short cuts stick out that much more. Hathaway is a character who supposedly made his bones in front of a computer screen, but is now asked, and is somehow prepared, to participate in shoot-outs and high-pressure stalking scenarios. In a pretty dire miscasting, he also looks like someone who could pass for a Norse thunder god. Davis's character is there to first put limits on Hathaway, and then take them off when her higher-ups become too cautious. In a laughable late moment, while Hathaway is deducing the villain's plan, Mann borrows the most laughable lines from his three-decades-earlier film Manhunter. Blackhat tries to suggest a tenuous new world, but it has one foot firmly in the old cinematic one.
There is a good movie buried in here somewhere, because Mann is incapable of making something that looks bad. All $70 million of the budget makes it onto the screen, resulting in the interesting locales of a Bond film. Hathaway et al criss-cross Southeast Asia, hopping from Hong Kong to Malaysia to Jakarta, and the set pieces that take place in these locations have a never-boring flair. The climactic showdown in Jakarta, amidst a parade of red-shirted men bearing torches, suggests the tense and beautiful film that could've been. Mann, who cowrote the script with Morgan Davis Foehl, might've had too much control on this one. Though it visually impresses, Blackhat needed several more passes and punch-ups to reach Mann's considerable upper echelon. As is, Blackhat might be his nadir. C-