Friday, January 16, 2015

Zaki's Review: Blackhat


In 2006, I passionately defended Michael Mann's much-derided Miami Vice feature film. Yes, it was often laborious. Yes, it was pretty much a mess. But hey, at least it was an ambitious mess. In 2009, I stood up for his old-timey gangster pic Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, which has also endured its fair share of brickbats. "It's a Michael Mann movie," I said. "If you're not feeling it, maybe that's on you," I said. But now here we are with Blackhat, the director's return to the theaters after a self-imposed six-year sabbatical, and I have no more words.

The cyber whodunnit (starring Chris Hemsworth as the most unbelievably buff, distractingly handsome computer hacker of all time) is leaden and clubfooted precisely when it should be sleek and sophisticated, and arrives with such a resounding thud that one feels compelled to start a forensic investigation before the closing credits have even rolled. As we watch the film hit the requisite "thriller" touchstones with the kind of on-the-nose writing and pacing usually reserved for straight-to-video junkers starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, we'd be hard-pressed to find anything pointing to the man responsible for such legitimately great films like The Insider and Collateral.

When a meltdown at a Chinese nuclear facility and the manipulation of American stocks both point to the same "Blackhat" (per Urban Dictionary, "A Hacker who uses his abilities for malicious purposes"), Chinese investigator Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) enlists the aid of his former MIT roommate Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth), currently serving a lengthy prison term for being the hackiest hacker who ever hacked. As they follow the trail of digital breadcrumbs, they soon uncover an elaborate plot involving three different countries, several bank accounts, and tin. Lots and lots of tin. Oh, and there's also a love story slotted in involving Hathaway and Chen's sister Lien (Wei Chang), but they'd already lost me by then.

Honestly, this was a rough one. Whether we're talking about the overly-complicated story, the overly-simplistic dialogue, or the clunky pacing, Blackhat is such a smorgasbord of missteps that it's genuinely hard to divine what the filmmakers' actual intent even was. Were they attempting to evoke the air of such memorable '70s conspiracy thrillers as The Parallax View? Or maybe they were going for something more recent, like 1998's Enemy of the State? Either way, they fall very, very short of either of those marks. If anything, the film comes off like something in the vein of The Net (you know, the 1995 Sandra Bullock vehicle that you'd completely forgotten about until just this very second).

I have to imagine that it was director Mann's name on the bill that got most of the cast onboard, but while someone like Viola Davis is solid enough in a nothing part as Hathaway's FBI minder, leading man Hemsworth is done absolutely no favors. Morgan Davis Foehl's script doesn't really give him much to do other than alternate between being The Smartest Guy in the Room and the greatest hand-to-hand fighter since Jason Bourne. I've said in the past that the true measure of Hemsworth's considerable star power is his ability to elevate even middling material (like, say, the terrible Red Dawn remake that he was quite good in), but this is the first time he's just seemed completely out to sea with a character.

In 1995's Heat, Michael Mann ended up creating one of the greatest scenes in cinema history when he had Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sit across from each other in a restaurant and pointed a camera at them. And while I wasn't expecting anything at that level here, there's nothing in all of Blackhat's globetrotting that can match the singular power and dramatic tension of that legendary moment. Although packed with Mann's trademark shot compositions and use of HD shaky-cam, it feels like a lesser helmer trying to emulate him rather than the real deal. After six years away, I had high hopes for a swift, decisive return to glory for Michael Mann. This isn't it. D

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