Hacking has always existed as a black box for convenient plot devices in film. From heist movies such as “The Italian Job” to straight-up action films such as “Die Hard 4,” cybercrime is always portrayed by a stereotypically nerdy character furiously mashing into a keyboard while transferring millions of dollars into a bank account or shutting off the power to an entire city. So while Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” manages to break many of the lazy tropes of hacking in most action films, a weak script — combined with uneven pacing and forgettable lead performances — ultimately prevents the film from reaching the ranks of Mann’s better work.
“Blackhat” begins and ends with a standard action film affair. After a blackhat hacker causes a nuclear meltdown at a Chinese power plant, computer security agent Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is tasked with forming a team to find the cybercriminal. Joining in the hunt includes his sister Lien (Wei Tang), FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and furloughed convict and old roommate Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). The investigation brings the team to locales across the globe, including Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Indonesia. While seeing Hemsworth actually use command-line to investigate and hack is somewhat novel, it doesn’t heighten suspense or add much to the film besides a small sense of authenticity. Even then, it just makes it laughable when Hemsworth gets mad and slams his keyboard on a table after looking at some lines of code. Overall, “Blackhat” is bound by the standard action film pacing that at times it is easy to forget that this film is about hacking and cyber-terror.
Aside from a cut-and-dry plot, many gratuitous elements make the film a bore and unintentionally farcical. The first twenty minutes includes two lengthy CGI sequences of flashing circuit boards that are being hacked, and they add nothing except runtime to the film. The first act starts with slow-paced investigation, but by the third act, everything devolves into chaos quite unexpectedly. Midway through the film, references to 9/11 also briefly provide some puzzling subtext that becomes quickly ignored minutes after. Even the main villain is introduced in the last half-hour of the film in the most flat way possible. The totality of these flaws not only hinder “Blackhat” from being enjoyable, but renders it forgettable.
The biggest offender is a dud romance Hemsworth and Teng that feels completely unnecessary. Not only does their blossoming romance feel contrived and ludicrous, but their chemistry is awkward and almost nonexistent. This is painfully apparent in their first on-screen kiss. The relationship would be forgivable if it were just a side-plot, but Hemsworth and Teng end up absorbing all of the screen-time by the halfway mark. Considering they are the two least interesting characters of the film, the following third act declines in quality.
The most redeeming elements of “Blackhat” are the action sequences, which are are some of the best Mann has done so far. A shootout in the docks of Hong-Kong is the most intense and visceral scene of the film, and it is near perfect — or as close to perfect as this film could possibly hope for. While it doesn’t match Mann’s bank heist sequence in “Heat,” it shares the similar pace and sense of excitement. An explosive twist at the end of the second act also spices up the film at its lowest point, but by then, the film still is not able to recover from its many falters.
In the end, “Blackhat” proves to be a surprising failure, barely reaching anything beyond competent. Aside from a few scenes, “Blackhat” remains lifeless and dull throughout, failing to reach the status of any other of Mann’s classics, such as “Collateral” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” While the film manages to successfully avoid offensively-awful portrayals of hacking, it fails to be a movie about hacking or a satisfying action thriller.
“Blackhat” is now playing at UA Berkeley 7.
Art Siriwatt covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].