Review: “Blackhat”

Let’s face it: Hollywood has yet to make an effective cyber-thriller. The black art of hacking works great on the page, but actually getting it onto the screen in a compelling way has so far proven to be elusive. There are only so many ways to film someone typing away on a computer and close-ups of the inner workings of said machine before it becomes repetitive.

With “Blackhat,” pulp-film auteur Michael Mann takes a stab the sub-genre, and if he can’t do it then no one can. So apparently no one can. One would think that Mann’s penchant for tough-guy existentialism, brooding nightscapes, and startling bursts of masterfully staged and consequential violence would perk things up a bit, and to a limited extent, they do.

Unfortunately, Mann comes across as detached and aloof from the already slack material “Blackhat” is also hampered by the casting of beefcake action hero Chris Hemsworth (aka Marvel’s mighty Thor) in the lead role of Nick Hathaway, a genius hacker serving fifteen years in a federal maximum security facility after stealing millions through online banking.

Hathaway comes across as stiff and impenetrable, and waaaaay too much of an idealised hacker hero. Granted, prison gives one plenty of time to buff up, but where did he find the time to hone his street-fighting skills between doing hard time and a career in rogue computer engineering? Sure, the “Thor”/”Avengers” films don’t require much from him, but anyone who has seen “Rush” knows he is better than this.

Hathaway is released on furlough at the insistence former college buddy/Chinese agent Chen (Leehom Wang) after mysterious cyber-criminal causes an explosion at a Chinese nuclear plant and later manipulates the Chicago Mercantile Exchange using an obscure piece of code Hathaway conjured up at MIT.

The team is accompanied by a federal agent (Viola Davis), a U.S. marshal (Holt McCallany), and Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang). All seem to put an awful lot of faith in Hathaway’s ankle monitor and brooding manliness. As a matter of fact, one of the movie’s biggest disconnects is the way it sets Hathaway as a bad-ass master hacker, and then shows the authorities keeping him on an incredibly long leash after making a clemency deal and springing him in a heartbeat at the urgings of a foreign government.

Not only do these folks loan him a smartphone without a second thought, something he quickly exploits, they even agree to look the other way while he scams his way into an NSA database. Granted, that last one only seems fair when you think about it.

Much of the inconsistencies, lapses in logic, and cut corners are the fault of first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl. Still, a skilled veteran like the one who gave us “Heat” and “The Insider” should arguably be able to compensate – or at least know when to ask for a rewrite. Instead, the director tries to power through the quagmire via his trademark visual style – which somehow fails to capture the gritty neon pulse of Hong Kong – and knack for stunning action scenes and tense shoot-outs. Said action is still among the best out there, yet not enough to elevate the dull procedural wrapped around them.