Growing concern about cybercrime might seem to give Michael Mann’s new film a leg up, but despite the director’s almost legendary reputation for style, “Blackhat” (the term for someone who violates internet security for illegal purposes) is nothing but a shallow exercise in Hollywood action tropes, designed to pander to the growing Asian market and visually ugly to boot. The last ten years haven’t been kind to the once-hot director, and this soporific misfire represents a new nadir for him, as depressing in its way as “The Counselor” was for Ridley Scott and a late-in-life potboiler like “Topaz” was for Alfred Hitchcock.
The picture’s problems begin early on, with a big set-up scene that simply fizzles. After a space-perspective view of earth, the camera zooms in to a nuclear plant in China, and then to the inner workings of its reactor, using animation to suggest how malware worms its way into operations to cause a devastating explosion. The sequence is supposed to cause tension and a jolt, but it fails miserably, not only because the animated portion is frankly as dull as later scenes of folks punching keyboards in front of computer screens will be, but because the catastrophe is dramatized in cramped, claustrophobic shots that suggest a tight budget rather than any directorial vision.
Assigned by Beijing bigwigs to track down the source of the disastrous hack is Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a young cybersecurity expert, who immediately enlists his sister Wei Tang (Lien Chen) to assist in the investigation. He quickly learns that a similar attack on a U.S. reactor was aborted, which means that if he can secure American cooperation in identifying the source, the two countries working together might be able to track down the responsible party. Soon he and Wei Tang are in Washington, collaborating with DOD honcho Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). That leads to the revelation that the attack was mounted on a program conceived by Chen Dewai himself, in collaboration with his old MIT roommate Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), currently ensconced in a federal prison. They spring Hathaway from the pen to become an additional member of their team—accompanied by an overseer for him, federal marshal Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany).
The resultant quintet are soon globe-trotting in pursuit of the elusive villain, first to Los Angeles, where they track down an underling who hacked a cyber-security firm; then to Hong Kong, where they encounter the mastermind’s vicious henchman Kasar (Ritchie Coster); then to Jakarta, where they (or those of the team who have survived thus far) locate his server; and finally to Malaysia, where they pinpoint the object of his dastardly plan. It’s a windingly labyrinthine plot, but one that grows sillier by the twist, ending in a revelation about the bad guy’s ultimate intention that’s absolutely tinny—an adjective that’s been chosen advisedly, as anyone who sits through the movie will understand.
Along the way, of course, Mann tosses in one action set-piece after another: a fight scene in a Los Angeles restaurant, a chase-and-shootout in the narrow streets (and tunnels) of Hong Kong, another explosive firefight in the city; and a final face-off set against the backdrop of a colorful parade in a Jakarta square. But for the most part they have remarkably little impact because they’re so ineptly choreographed and muddily shot and edited (by Stuart Dryburgh and the team of Joe Walker, Stephen Rivkin, Jeremiah O’Driscoll and Mako Kamitsuna, respectively). Only the third of them makes much of an impression at all, and that’s not because it’s any less messy and incoherent than the others, but because it involves unexpected death.
Even the demise of a major character has only a momentary effect, however, because none of the five team members emerges as a fully-rounded figure, and it’s impossible to invest emotionally in any of them. It’s a problem of the actors as well as the writing, however. Hemsworth swaggers through the picture with a sullen, pugnacious air that’s supposed to hide Hathaway’s hidden good-guy vulnerability, but the result is as drab as the washed-out visuals. And while Davis and McCallany bring a bit of energy to the proceedings, both Chinese performers are disappointing. Wang Leehom is mostly briskly impassive, and Tang Wei is hobbled by her obvious difficulty with English—she sounds as though she’s reciting the lines phonetically, with marbles in her mouth to boot. But that’s not the only reason why Chen Lien’s romantic involvement with Hathaway never resonates. Not only is it tossed willy-nilly into the action plot, but there’s simply no chemistry between the stars. As for the villains, Coster’s Kasar isn’t a stereotypical Russian gangster (he’s identified as an erstwhile Lebanese Christian Phalangist ), but he certainly feels like one; and in lieu of a truly memorable mastermind of Bondian proportions, the script gives us a pallid facsimile in the person of Yorick van Wageningen. (Oh, were Donald Pleasance still around—he could have had some fun with the part.) The various other American and Chinese officials scattered about the plot have little to do, which is why actors like Jon Ortiz and William Mapother are wasted playing a couple of them.
Perhaps somebody will finally figure out a way of making a tale of cybercrime compelling, but Mann’s mixture of glitzy computer screens and badly staged spy-movie action sequences certainly doesn’t do the job. Though it deals with a kind of threat that should keep us on the edge of our seats, “Blackhat” proves old-hat, an unimaginative take on a cutting-edge subject that comes off both ludicrous and boring.