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Blackhat | Review

Black in the Saddle: Mann’s Cyber Thriller Forgets Thrills

Michael Mann Blackhat PosterThough clearly uninterested in providing conventional thrills with his first theatrical release in six years, director Michael Mann’s Blackhat unfortunately forgets to be as uniquely innovative and engaging with its narrative as it is with its showy feats. A return to visual form for the aesthetically inclined auteur, sporting perhaps the best digital photography from the director’s latter filmography to date, the film is littered with schlocky convenience, instances of miscasting despite committed performances, and, worst of all, it’s uniformly dull. A high minded tech thriller, one wonders how the IT inclined could pick apart the film’s sometimes rudimentary logic. Mann and first time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl would seem to sidestep formula, but they simply replace structure with narrative sprawl and credibility stretching conveniences. One only has to point to the tired clichés of the banal romantic liaison tacked onto the film to find that this is merely a semi-elaborate tech thriller subject to unyielding praise from those projecting wisps of meaning into the empty visual stylings of Mann.

A nuclear explosion in China sets off a chain of events that finds Chinese liaison Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) working with officials from the FBI and the US Department of Justice to finger a culprit whose malware caused the meltdown (the hacker was foiled by the US, so the information their systems were able to capture would be the ideal starting point). Taking his programmer sister Lien Chen (Wei Tang) along, Dawai convinces DOJ official Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) to arrange for the release of his MIT classmate Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), currently serving time as a ‘blackhat’ hacker. Hathaway and Dawai had designed the program that provided the basis for what was used in China, and again in a stock market fiasco that resulted in the hackers obtaining large sums of money deposited into three different bank accounts. Barrett and her gang track the marauders from Hong Kong to Indonesia to discover who is behind this international chaos and what their motives are.

Much like Colin Farrell’s turn as Crockett in Mann’s revisionist Miami Vice take, Chris Hemsworth doesn’t feel quite right for the role, imbuing his performance with a gruff growl that often distracts. Though it’s Hemsworth’s most notable project to date, his physical characteristics do not always match the emotional prowess necessary to outdo the screenplay’s weaker spots, such as an incredibly silly epiphany in the deserts of Indonesia where his Hathaway unveils the hacker’s insidious plans involving the price of tin. And the hand-to-hand combat sequences, while generating a great degree of kinetic energy, are a bit too frequent to warrant believability considering his character wasn’t trained for that (and no, simply being in prison isn’t enough of an explanation). Likewise, a dip into MacGyver territory to combat the deadly hackers in the extended finale feels equally frivolous.

Much like the baseless romance between Gong Li and Farrell in Vice, the resulting relationship between Wei Tang and Hemsworth feels equally forced, if mostly because we never bother to learn much of anything about her other than that she’s generally an unhappy person. Multiple supporting characters unspool as mere matters of convenience, which wastes the talents of Viola Davis, donning a questionable hairpiece. Finally depositing our protagonists into the hands of the enemy in the midst of a parade, a never-ending cluster of Indonesians are treated like a school of senseless fish, ignorant of the violent actions happening in front of their eyes, only fleeing at the report of gunfire. It’s a significant and ultimately demeaning moment with humans used as mere props for more of Mann’s famous camerawork.

Despite an unbelievably corny opening sequence that gives us the perspective of running through computer systems on the back of the ‘hacking agent,” a flourish used twice in exact succession seemingly because money was spent on the graphic design, there’s a lot of fancy visual artifice, but once we’re wise to the superficial momentum established, you won’t give a damn what color the hat in a film that remains purposefully vague with its technological concepts so that it can manipulate the parameters its working within. This could all be generally acceptable if Blackhat managed to simultaneously engross or at least care about grooming the attention of its audience.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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