Blackhat, a suspense spectacle about the hunt for a hacker who sabotaged a Chinese nuclear plant and manipulated soy futures on Chicago’s Mercantile Trade Exchange, should be a prize Michael Mann movie. Full of journalistic energy and aesthetic ambition, its argot, attitudes, and real and virtual textures emerge from Mann’s relentless quest to uncover dynamic worlds beyond and beneath tomorrow’s trending topics.

Blackhat is also a woeful letdown, with soporific stretches and thin or lumpy characters who come to life just seconds before they die. But it’s an artistic failure, not a crass, commercial misfire. Mann presents an onslaught of computer jargon and a parade of undeveloped personalities because he never finds an ideal way to dramatize his vision of cybercrime and punishment, not because of box-office calculation. It’s difficult to stay even semi-conscious during the dry, data-heavy setup (Morgan Davis Foehl wrote the script). Several setpieces, no matter how virtuosic, lack the action-painting poetry to keep them from being merely bludgeoning.

Via the character of Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a working-class computer whiz built like a white John Henry, Mann hoped to get at the essential traits of hackers—their intellectual hubris, their can-you-top-this? gamesmanship, their need to find an external, tangible measure of code-cracking prowess. Hathaway, an imprisoned cyber-criminal, becomes the key member of a joint Chinese-American investigation, spearheaded by his best friend and former MIT roommate, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), a People’s Liberation Army captain. Hathaway has a clear way to measure his success: if he gets the bad guy, it will lop off 11 years from his prison term—and allow him to continue the romance that sparks between him and his friend’s sister, network engineer Chen Lien (Tang Wei), who’s also an essential part of the team. What turns Hathaway into a promising movie fantasy figure is that he’s acquired close-combat skills during four years behind bars. He can shank thugs and assassins as easily as he slices through code.


In the past, even Mann’s “procedurals” have depicted instinct meshing with process, whether in his anatomy of a home invader Thief (81), or in the peerless profiling sections of his Red Dragon adaptation Manhunter (86). Part of the problem in Blackhat is that no matter how hard Hemsworth tries to capture the focus and alacrity of a master hacker, his ability to second-guess the enemy’s moves too often comes off as if achieved by rote. He’s 99 percent sure that the other hacker would do exactly what he himself did, especially since he and Chen Dawai actually co-wrote the RAT (or Remote Access Tool) that allowed the villain to invade computer systems and implant his own malware.

Hathaway is far more entertaining when he comes up with an offhand piece of ingenuity to pull off a seemingly momentous deed, like, say, breaching the National Security Agency. Stunts like that express a 21st-century brand of can-do irreverence. I think Mann wants to startle and engage us with the matter-of-fact flexibility of these youngish characters, whether it’s Chen Dawai revealing that he speaks perfect English as well as Mandarin, or Chen Lien falling hard for Hathaway without worrying about his future. At its most intuitive, this over-intellectualized movie suggests that people who’ve grown up with a digital sensibility have elastic boundaries, quicksilver emotions, and a hard time setting adult priorities. If only the writing made them fresh or expressive!

The film’s biggest laugh would fit right in a teen comedy: Chen Dawai racing into Hathaway’s bedroom to announce an emergency and not even registering a double take when he sees his sister in bed with his pal. Hemsworth and Tang Wei are lovely to look at, but their romance lacks punch. When Hathaway seems to seal their intimacy by confessing his hard-luck family history, Mann drowns it out with soundtrack music, as if the banal words are embarrassing. And once they get past their first big hug, Hemsworth and Wang Leehom—and Mann—underplay Hathaway and Dawai’s buddyhood until you wonder if they bonded over anything besides computer skills. These youthful, glamorized geeks don’t cast much of a shadow until their team takes a devastating hit.


Hathaway finally connects with his too-long-anonymous prey, the elusive Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen), by phone. This blackhat admits that he often can’t tell where he is or even who he is. It’s a signature line for this film’s take on the perils of cyber-consciousness. This confession also explains why the action seems to drift even when it finally gains momentum. The movie tries to gain existential ballast from characters who lack individuality and a strong sense of self—which should be essential starting points for any existential quest. Hathaway and Chen Lien firm up as hero and heroine only after they take risks to avenge fallen friends. A few gifted character actors bring the force of actual experience to each gesture, especially Viola Davis as FBI agent Carol Barrett, who combines acute psychological awareness with implacable command, and Ritchie Coster, as Sadak’s middleman and muscle, Kassar, who embodies the ruthless discipline of a battle-scarred merc. They anchor the film emotionally without weighing it down.

As all the deductions and adventures funnel into an extended global manhunt, with stops in Hong Kong, Perak (Malaysia), and Jakarta, Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (who previously collaborated on Mann’s pilot for the HBO series Luck) orchestrate mercurial visuals. The film is full of imagistic marvels. You probably have never seen a homicidal restaurant brawl shot quite this close to each combatant. It’s a tribute to Mann’s visual imagination and kinetic sensibility that he can rejuvenate the cliché of a hero leveling a gang of brutish troublemakers with anything at hand, from a broken bottle to a tabletop. But the thrills are fleeting, because Mann basically puts us in Hathaway’s mindset, and that’s a barren place to be.

Hathaway catalyzes the inevitable messy, gaudy showdown when he arranges to meet Sadak during a polychromatic public event at Jakarta’s Papua Square, jammed with thousands of celebrants in traditional costume. We get the irony of a keyboard clash being settled mano a mano. How could we not? The movie has already overdosed on the contrasts between bloodless computer duels and gory shootouts—and between the microcosmic focus of hackers and their macrocosmic powers of real-world destruction. Humanity, though, washes away in the bombast, including the fate of countless Indonesian bystanders that Hathaway puts in harm’s way.


Throughout the final sequence, I thought of the climax to Brian De Palma’s 1981 masterpiece, Blow Out. During its splashy “Liberty Day” sequence in Philadelphia, literal and operatic fireworks capture the tragedy of a man who loses his love because he puts too much faith in technology, just as the denouement catches the creeping horror of a world in which sound and image can drastically manipulate “the truth.” Michael Mann—the artist who can make period films that are visceral and immediate (The Last of the Mohicans, 92; Public Enemies, 09) and journalistic films that are lucid and artistic (The Insider, 99; Ali, 01), and the entertainer who can make solid moral fables like Collateral (04) and pop-elegant extensions of the Zeitgeist like Miami Vice (06)—could have updated and intensified that story for the digital world. Blackhat is a visual blowout, but it’s no Blow Out.