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Blackhat Another Bust for Acclaimed Director Mann

<i>Blackhat</i> Another Bust for Acclaimed Director Mann

DVD Release Date: May 12, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: January 16, 2015
Rating: R for violence and some language
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 133 min.
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Ritchie Coster

Ah, January, that cold, bitter month of movie wasteland. The month when movie studios choose to open some of their weakest movies of the year—awards-contenders-to-be that didn't cut it (and the studios know it), American remakes of Japanese horror films, another Taken and maybe, just maybe, the occasional film that's worth seeing over the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

The studio behind Blackhat, the new film from director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider), must have had high hopes for the film. A cyber-thriller directed by a vaunted filmmaker, with a release date that falls just weeks after a high-profile cyber attack (the Sony email hack), Blackhat has the ingredients to be a timely, cinematic treatment of an important subject.

But something went wrong. Mann's usually steady hand, which stylishly carries viewers through stretches of cinema that would be deemed dull and overextended in the hands of a less skilled filmmaker, fails him here, resulting in a first hour that hardly moves and never comes close to making us care about its characters or the criminal plot they're trying to halt. Were it not for a few strong action sequences during the second half of the film, Blackhat would be completely insufferable.

The problems start with the casting of Chris Hemsworth, best known for playing Thor, as computer expert Nick Hathaway, furloughed from prison so he can help a government team led by Carol Barret (Viola Davis, Ender's Game) track down someone who's been tinkering with a computer code co-written years earlier by Nick and his college roommate Chen (Leehom Wang). The mysterious mastermind currently using the code has taken down a Chinese reactor and is next planning to drive up the price.

The story starts in the United States but jumps across continents, as Nick and the team—including Chen's sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang)—trace the villain. After those promising few opening minutes, however, the great drama Mann is known for (The Insider is arguably his best film) eludes him. While Hemsworth is less than convincing as a computer genius, the casting of Tang is also problematic. She delivers her lines with an unease that suggests English is not her first language. Even were her pronunciation perfect, Hemsworth and Tang's conversation in a restaurant carries nowhere near the import that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in Heat.

But Mann is also known for spectacular action sequences, and the gunfights he stages in Blackhat are good enough to remind one of similar shootouts from earlier films. Mann also has figured out a way to do what other filmmakers have tried and failed for years to do: visualize data traveling over computer networks in a way that's cinematically compelling, as in Blackhat's opening moments. If only the many scenes of Hemsworth and other cast members typing on their laptops and executing the commands that send the data were similarly pulse-quickening. Instead, they prove that a not even a filmmaker of Mann's caliber has figured out how to create cinematic interest out of such moments.

At least those scenes try to excite. The rest of Blackhat hardly registers a pulse.

The 1990s were good to Michael Mann. Starting with The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and continuing through Heat (1995) and The Insider (1996), Mann strung together a group of films that confirmed his skills at mounting compelling stories that combined strong lead performances with distinctive visual style. The new century has been tougher on the filmmaker, with films like Ali (2001), Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009) underperforming with audiences and critics alike (2004's Collateral is a well-liked exception). Mann's move into cable TV with the horse-racing drama Luck (2011), starring Dustin Hoffman, was canceled prematurely because of troubling problems on the set.

Those Mann efforts may have been underperformers, but Blackhat is an outright misfire. The good stuff in it has been done by the same filmmaker just as well, even better, in his other movies, but the good elements are far outweighed by the bad. Blackhat is about as much fun as a computer virus, and just as annoying.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; a few profanities; “what the hell”; the “f” word
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: A needle in the arm of a corpse
  • Sex/Nudity: Nick and Lien kiss and have sex; no nudity, although we see them talking and sleeping in bed a few times
  • Violence/Crime: Rough handling of a prisoner; corpses with pooling blood; lots of gunfire; a bomb detonates; stabbings; an arm is snapped; fighting

Publication date: January 15, 2015