Blackhat Is a Slack Piece of Storytelling Surrounded by That Alluring Michael Mann Feel

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Photo: Frank Connor/Universal Pictures

A new Michael Mann thriller is always a sterling occasion to pour a drink, prepare to think sad thoughts, and settle in for a few hours of woozy existentialism broken by splatter. His new cybercrime picture Blackhat boasts all his signature themes and curlicues: brooding nightscapes, heavy synthesizer washes that give way to swift and startling violence, a hero who’s an odds-on favorite in the God’s Loneliest Man contest. The formula can be intoxicating even in a slack piece of storytelling like Blackhat, which is good enough to make you wish it were better. I found myself urging it forward, trimming scenes in my head, and recasting the lead with ... almost anyone.

He’s Chris Hemsworth, who’s far more credible as an extraterrestrial Norse god fallen to Earth from another dimension than a maverick computer genius serving a long sentence for cyberfraud. The movie’s feel is part Manhunter, part Miami Vice, but Mann got a lot more gravitas out of William Petersen, Don Johnson, and Colin Farrell, all of whom could look like they really, really wanted to be alone with their loneliness. (Don’t bother me, I’m brooding.) Hemsworth is a blank canvas; you can’t feel his soul all a-roil. When his Hathaway — sprung from prison after an unknown “blackhat” sabotages both a Chinese nuclear plant and the world soybean market — stops to stare into the shimmering heat waves at the end of an airport runway, it’s as if Mann is parodying himself.  What will Hathaway do next — fall for some sleek Asian woman?

Why, yes. Lien (Wei Tang) is the sister of his old college chum and fellow computer freak, Dawai (Leehom Wang), who first argued the case for furloughing Hathaway. The FBI doesn’t like that, and the NSA likes it less (partner with the Chinese government and a renowned outlaw hacker?), but it takes a thief, etc. Viola Davis plays the agent assigned to glower at Hathaway and threaten Dawai (“I’ll be happy to bust him back to Leavenworth and put your ass back on the first plane to China!”), though you know she’ll come around when she sees that Hathaway can not only break into seemingly impregnable systems but also beat up bad guys like Jack Reacher (the giant in the Lee Child book series, not the diminutive Tom Cruise of the movie). As for Lien, it isn’t long before Hathaway is contemplating her long neck and silken arm as they’re kissed by the sunset, then making hungry love to her while bathed in cobalt blue.

Mann does some fancy whooshing around in a computer’s innards in the first scene, which I’d have been able to watch if a woman in my row hadn’t gotten up, stepped on my feet, come back and stepped on my feet, and gotten up again and stepped on my feet. (Me: Pick a goddamn seat! Her: What’s your problem? It’s just the beginning.) There’s a lot of jumping around before the narrative gets going; the stop-and-start is constant, the plot too lurching to build much momentum or suspense. But just when you’re feeling especially languid, there’ll be a brutal fight or shoot-out, and you’ll remember how potent Mann’s mix of the narcotizing and the ferocious can be. The action scenes have a shot-on-video look Mann plays up. I’m of two minds  about its effectiveness, but at its best it’s as if he’s switching to a different, more “real” mode of existence. The violence here isn’t on the near-hallucinatory level of Miami Vice, but it’s intense, emotional, ugly in all the right ways.

We know little about the villain, except — thanks to an early shot of his back — that he’s shaggy and stout and has reddish-blond hair. I spent a couple of hours hoping the big reveal would be Philip Seymour Hoffman in a secret last role, but, alas ... The climax in Jakarta has a couple of excellent hemorrhages, although too many innocent, anonymous Jakartans get casually mowed down for my taste. (I had the same problem with the shambolic Koreatown disco shoot-out in Collateral.) Before that, Hemsworth gets to do a big Eureka number out of Manhunter: “That’s what you’re doin’, isn’t it, you sonovabitch?” It’s a pale, listless echo, but it’s rousing in this context.

The problem, I think, is that Mann hasn’t reconfigured himself for his new milieu. The Neuromancer-like world of cyberspace would seem to be a natural home for God’s Loneliest Man circa 2015, but in Blackhat, Hathaway does more kickboxing than hacking. Mann would rather be coasting the canals or stewing over crime scenes. The definiteness of computers seems to stymie him. For all his digital resources, his existentialism is analog.