One of the things I love about Netflix is the site’s habit of surprising me with new titles that I may have initially been curious about during their theatrical run, but never saw and, usually due to a luke-warm Box Office response, came and quickly went…into a sort of Cinematic Obscurity. ‘Blackhat’ was one such title. I admire director Michael Mann and think he’s made some seriously masterful films over the years, with titles like ‘Thief’ (1981), ‘Manhunter’ (1986), ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (1992), ‘Heat’ (1995) and ‘Collateral'(2004) shining prominently in his filmography. But like every director, he also has his share of sub-par product, like ‘Miami Vice’ (2006), and ‘Public Enemies’ (2009). When ‘Blackhat’ first came to my attention, I was intrigued. Michael Mann doing an international cyber-crime thriller? Works for me! Then I read some reviews…that were not kind. It would seem that bad word-of-mouth spread quickly on this title and it quietly faded from theatres, clearly considered a dud. That being said, I was still curious. SOMETIMES, I’ve come across movies that were shit upon, when they first came out, that I catch up with later and actually have a pretty good time with in the end. So I naturally wondered if this would be the case…or would this flick be to Michael Mann what ‘1941’ (1979) is to Steven Spielberg, what ‘Revolver’ (2005) is to Guy Ritchie, what ‘The Counselor’ (2013) is to Ridley Scott…an embarrassment. A shit-stain on the ole resume’. SO…on an early, strangely-snowy Saturday afternoon, once a slew of domestic crap was dealt with, I was poking around on the Flix of Net, and I came upon this one and was instantly reminded of my original intrigue about it. Having nothing but time to kill, I slid into some sweats, grabbed my notepad, and thumped my ass down onto the couch.
‘Blackhat’ follows an American / Chinese cyber crimes unit who is tasked with discovering who hacked into a Chinese nuclear power plant and caused a deadly meltdown. Chris Hemsworth (‘Thor’) plays ‘Nick Hathaway’, an imprisoned hacker who once helped write the code that was used, who is released from prison to help with the investigation. The intrigue takes them from the US to Asia as they pursue their target before another deadly attack ensues.
Here are my scribbles:
-Weird macro(?) intro. Nuke facility. The opening scene goes through this long, meandering sequence showing the microscopic insides of computers and circuits at work as a hacker orchestrates a disaster at an Asian nuclear power facility.
-Fukushima? Nope. China. The parallels to the Japanese nuclear disaster of 2011 were too hard to ignore.
-Ah, the ole Michael Mann ‘video’ sheen. Lots of distracting ‘hand-held’. Back in the day, Michael Mann was a master at shot compositions. I dare anyone to go back to 1992’s excellent ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ adaptation and show me a lazy shot. I dare ya! But somewhere in the early 2000’s, Mann embraced the concept of shooting his films in digital, instead of film, and it shows. Lots of directors have taken to digital, but somehow when Michael Mann does it, it’s plainly obvious that that’s what it is. It always feels like watching Behind the Scene rehearsals or something. ‘Public Enemies’ is especially bad for this, followed closely behind by ‘Miami Vice’. The ‘video’ gloss and the tendency to shoot ‘hand-held’ just feels lazy and cheap now, and it pulls me out of the ‘movie’ aspect of watching the movie.
-Of course Hemsworth is a stoic badass who does crazy workouts in ‘Solitary’. And why wouldn’t he be. Just think ‘Sarah Connor’ in ‘T2’, and you’ll get the idea.
-Video distracting. Why Michael Mann…WHY?!! Again, the weird look and movement just threw me off. Digital wasn’t working.
-Hemsworth’s accent distracting and weird, shoulda kept his Aussie accent. I don’t really now what regional American accent they were trying to give the ‘Hathaway’ character, but it came across as oddly stilted and overly macho. There’s no reason the character couldn’t have been Australian.
-Dull pace…so far. This was at about the 30 minute mark in the 2 hour 13 minute run-time. Didn’t bode well.
-Cute Asian chick. Who? That ‘cute Asian chick’ I’m so one-dimensionally referring to is an Asian actress named Wei Tang…who just happens to be a ‘cute Asian chick’, in my humble opinion.
-Characters lack character…so far. By now, about 45 minutes in. NO ONE stands out as being of any depth or substance. I have no compulsion to root for ANYBODY. Not good.
-No Chemistry. Stupid Chinese restaurant attempt at a ‘meet-cute’. Not sure I’m using ‘meet-cute’ in the right context here, but that’s what I wrote. This scene felt like some half-ass’d attempt to set up a romantic ‘something’ later, with two actors who were only just on set together…nothing else. No chemistry between Hemsworth and Tang. None.
-FINALLY! Some action. Decent fight. Thankfully, the awkward restaurant scene is broken up by goons who turn up to ruin the evening…and gritty little fist fight breaks out. Not bad.
-WTF?! A gratuitous sex scene between two chemistry-less leads. Useless. SO not convincing. I knew that’s where that lame ‘connection’ in the restaurant was leading! I KNEW IT!!
-Why are they at the nuke site? They’re hackers!! This just seemed wrong. I get that they wanted to examine the computers for evidence of the hacker, but c’mon! A ‘hot’ nuke accident site? Not sure anyone’s getting too close, much less venturing inside to play with computers. I could be wrong…but I call bullshit on that!…for now.
-Nice plug for ‘Android’. Wifi detector. There’s a scene during a stakeout where Hemsworth asks a fellow operative for his cell, specifying his need for an ‘Android’ phone, which he then proceeds to turn into a fancy lil Wifi signal detector, which reveals a device of the enemy hiding nearby.
-Forced romance feels like ‘Miami Vice’. Mann’s 2006 adaptation of his own trend-setting series from the 1980’s had a lot of problems and one of the main ones was the bullshit forced romance shit that breaks out between Colin Farrell’s ‘Sonny Crockett’ and Li Gong’s ‘Isabella’. Just no chemistry and therefore, no stakes. It felt like useless filler in that flick…and also in this one.
-Again, why are they going in with a SWAT team?! Our main characters are hackers…not heavily armed soldiers-of-fortune or special forces operatives. Just computer nerds. Yet there they are…racing into the fray with the badasses with Special Weapons and Tactics.
-Cool gunfight. Shipyard. One area in which I can never fault Michael Mann is his staging of exciting and awesome-sounding gunfights, and the ones that do break out in this flick are no exception.
-SO. MUCH. TECHNOBABBLE. Apparently tons of the dialogue and computer hacking scenes are accurate, but Jesus!…alpha-numerical gobble-dee-gook left, right and centre! Don’t fetishize the science at the expense of your story cohesion and pacing…which is exactly what happened.
-Another decent gunfight. This one came out of nowhere, genuinely surprising me. It’s a well-staged shoot-em up, with some sexy use of slo-mo and the quick deaths of a couple main characters.
-And…back to boring. Wow, this one was ‘on’ for some short spurts, but holy shit…does everything around those scenes draaaagggg!
-They’re fugitives. How are they travelling?! Our two main characters are now on the run, from a couple different federal agencies, in a couple of different countries…yet they somehow manage to have cash and resources that allow them to slip into other nations with no problem. Pfft! Sure.
-Bad guys not threatening. We don’t actually meet the villain till way far into the run-time, like an hour and a half in, or something. And he’s just some dork with an unfortunate hair style who wants to do a thing to a thing, which’ll cause something to happen. We know VERY little about him and that reduces him to the level of one of his goons, who just happens to get a bit more screen time. Weak and poorly written, with no ‘presence’.
-Abrupt end fight. No tension. Just like the one above about the non-threatening bad guys, because we’re given almost nothing on their motivations or personalities, coupled with the fact that none of our main characters have any chemistry together, means there are virtually NO stakes in the final gun battle. And it ends pretty damn fast.
Overall…pretty boring. Pretty much sums it up right there.
And there you have it. I completely understand why this one tanked at the box office, as it’s dull as shit and doesn’t give you anybody to root for. It reminded me of a clumsy mash-up of 1995’s ‘Hackers’ and ‘The Jackal’ (1997), beamed through the cheap digital sheen of Michael Mann’s preferred look these days. I’m sure they didn’t set out to make a lame movie…but that’s ultimately what they / we got. It’s not that the production value isn’t there or the occasional bursts of action are weak, it’s that the story and the script are simply unoriginal and sloppy, with characters that are about as one-dimensional as the paper they’re printed on. I felt NO investment in the narrative and actually caught myself nodding off as I slogged through it. ‘Blackhat’ is simply a movie that’s…there. It exists. Though I’m not really sure why. If you’re a completist and a fan of Michael Mann’s past work, sure…maybe give it a shot? But to me…Mann is capable of so much more and I hope he gets his mojo back soon. No more lazy shit like this, Michael…gonna hold you to a higher standard, sir!
BONUS REVIEW: I originally meant for this to be a Saturday Double Feature write-up, as me n The Mrs.’ also watched ‘Everest’ (2015), but the quality on that flick was of a noticeably higher caliber and therefore, I wasn’t inclined to keep grabbing my notepad so…no notes to lay on you, Dear Reader. But, in a nutshell…’Everest’ is the story of the disastrous 1996 expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest, in which several members of the team lost their lives trying to escape from a sudden storm that washed over them just after they left the summit. It boasts an all-star cast, with actors like Jason Clarke, Sam Worthington, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and John Hawkes bringing the characters to life, supported by Kiera Knightly, Robin Wright and Emily Watson. It’s a slow-build that gets the tension right and the desperation of the situation across, along with touching on the question of ‘Why?’, when it comes to the exploration of unnecessary life-threatening conquests. The cinematography was impressive and I suspect it would’ve been slick to see on The Big Screen. The sound design was also great and it’s worth turning it up a little. This movie I can definitely recommend, especially if you like intense dramas in which Man must face down the fury of Nature or perish, or adventure stories that take their inspiration from Real Life events, tragic or otherwise.