This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
After a Chinese nuclear reactor is compromised by a terrorist hacker, the Chinese and American governments team up with a convicted hacker-thief to prevent worldwide calamity.
What we thought
Michael Mann's long and largely illustrious career as a top-tier thriller director has had some bumps in the road before. While films like Heat and Manhunter have been met with near-universal praise but he has also been responsible for relative misfires like Miami Vice and The Keep. Blackhat though, doesn't so much feel like a mere road bump in his career, so much as one of those spiky numbers that some shopping centres and airports employ that are specifically designed to rip your car to shreds should you have the audacity to try and break through a boom – or, worse, accidentally hit the accelerator before that stupid red light in front of the boom turns green. Not that I'm talking from experience, you understand.
It wouldn't be fair to say that Blackhat hasn't received any good reviews – the general critical consensus seems to even out at “tepid”, rather than “godawful” - but it strikes me as being such a major misfire that Mann is going to need a Godfather-level achievement to get past it. It's not just bad by Mann's usually high standards, it's a total trainwreck by any measure. I don't quite know what those other critics were thinking or what movie they were watching but I am at a loss as to how anyone could think that Blackhat is anything other than a total disaster – or, at the very least, a serious mess.
It's so bad, in fact, that I barely even know where to begin dismantling the bloody thing. Should I start with the almost uniformly bad acting from the almost uniformly excellent cast? How about the idea that casting Chris Hemsworth (who I usually really, really like) as a super-hacker might possibly the worst bit of casting since they had Meg Ryan play a helicopter pilot in Courage Under Fire? Or how about the utterly non-existent characterization of everyone aside for, oddly enough, Hemsworth's character – who is at least afforded something that vaguely resembles a dimension or two?
Forget all that though. The biggest problem with Blackhat is that it fails – and fails spectacularly – to do what it set out to do. It is, in theory anyway, a mix of a smart techno-thriller with a full-on action movie, with a wee bit of romance thrown in. The romance is arbitrary and utterly unconvincing as Hemsworth and Wei Tang display precious little chemistry and the two characters seem thrown together more by plot needs than anything even remotely resembling a natural coupling.
But hey, who watches a Michael Mann film for the romance? Here's the really scary part though: in comparison to how miserably it fails at being either an action film or a techno-thriller, let alone balancing the two, that rubbish romance might be the best part of the film. The techno-thriller parts of the film (most of the first two thirds of the film) mostly consist of people walking into rooms spouting jargon at one another. Don't expect any laughs here, obviously, but I wouldn't even hold your breath for a bit of humanity. And believe me these sections (which are, again, the vast majority of a 133-minute-long movie!) are about as thrilling as this description sounds.
Not that things get much better when the action starts. Putting aside the fact that the ludicrous action set pieces of tonally incompatible with the weirdly sincere (oh yes, Mann evokes 9/11 to give the whole thing some seriously unearned gravitas) and dead-serious techno-thriller plot, they don't even work when taken by themselves. Sure, it's unspeakably stupid when a group of heavily armed men walk through a massively over-crowded religious ceremony in Istanbul (it tries to make up for its dullness by trotting all over the globe, you see) without anyone in the crowd even slightly reacting to them until they open fire, Mann's embrace of digital filming renders the action both unwatchable and weirdly amateurish.
There's a certain amount of “clipping” that comes with moving digital cameras in rapid, sweeping motions so Mann's already jerky, hyper-kinetic action direction goes from being exciting, if slightly confusing to full-on headache inducing. Most bad action films need to employ heavy editing (hello, Taken 3!) to achieve this level of nausea so it says something that Mann achieves much the same thing with his direction alone. Also as a result of his use of a digital camera, the action scenes don't look like well-produced action scenes so much as the result of an amateur filming an action scene on his iPhone after partaking of just a few too many shots of absinthe.
Few directors have openly embraced digital filmmaking in the way that Mann has but ironically few directors make use of it worse than Mann does. Blackhat is already a deathly boring, under-written mess of a film but did it really have to be so ugly too?
And, yes, I did just rate a Michael Mann movie lower than Fifty Shades of Grey. Try and wrap your head around that!