Don’t grow old in Hollywood, not even as a filmmaker. Ridley Scott churns out a Bible epic in 2014, and the critics tore his flesh from his bones before most of them had even seen Exodus: Gods and Kings. Clint Eastwood makes one of the best films of his directorial career (American Sniper), and the Twitter-verse just wants to scream at him about stealing an Oscar nomination from Ava DuVernay (Selma). Never mind the fact that the Academy has been rewarding folks in the twilight of their careers over the talented first-timers since the inception of the awards.
And now, Michael Mann, the crime film auteur behind titles like Thief, Manhunter, Heat and Collateral, has a film premiering in the cinematic dumping ground that is January. From the look of the reviews, the critics were sharpening their knives for this one back in November. Is Blackhat a new Michael Mann masterpiece? Absolutely not. Is it the worst action film you’ve ever seen as most critics and reviewers would have you believe? Only if you don’t get out much.
Blackhat is a gorgeous, glossy film with moments of breath-taking cinematography, but it barely has a brain in its pretty head. Chris Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway, an imprisoned computer hacker who is pressed into service to catch a cyber terrorist. The government decides its worth commuting his sentence to have his particular genius at their disposal. Only the script never has him do anything brilliant. A room full of FBI investigators is stumped until Nick suggests that they see if the power cord to the computer is plugged in.
The primary flaw is in the premise. How do you make a thriller about someone chasing a terrorist while seated at a computer terminal? You can’t. So, as soon as he is sprung from prison, Nick is globe-hopping from Hong Kong to Jakarta to Indonesia even though everything he needs to accomplish could be done from a prison cell with a T-1 line. Hand-to-hand combat and gun battles ensue. Evidently fighting in prison cafeterias has prepared Nick well for taking on professional mercenaries.
Although not at the level of the firefight on the streets of Los Angeles in Heat, the action sequences are filled with tension and the kind of violent realism to which Michael Mann always aspires. When the synth chords pulse and the drums pound and ricocheting bullets punctuate the score, Blackhat comes alive with several memorable action set pieces. And Mann was born to film at night. The neon skylines of exotic locations and the primary colors of urban nightlife pop against the darkness of night. The visuals are often stunning without looking staged. The cinematography provides glimpses of what Blackhat might have been.
Michael Mann has always been blessed with charismatic leading men: James Caan in Thief, Deniro and Pacino in Heat and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Unfortunately, Chris Hemsworth is a cipher with an unnecessary American accent in this film. (Don’t people from Australia go to MIT, too?) He clearly has screen presence as Marvel’s favorite God of Thunder, and he proved he had some actual acting chops in Ron Howard’s race car drama, Rush. But in Blackhat, Hemsworth is mostly an impossibly handsome face spouting dialogue that justifies the trip to the next exotic locale. Once again, more a fault of the underwritten script than the Aussie actor.
At this point in his career, Michael Mann doesn’t have to justify himself to critics and audiences. But, it is worth noting that it’s been ten years since his last memorable film. At age 71, here’s hoping he has something better than Blackhat still in the tank.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.