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Review: Michael Mann Can’t Crack the Code in Chris Hemsworth Technothriller ‘Blackhat’

I love me some Michael Mann. You may, too: the manly men that enthrall him and the strong emotional bonds between partners and rivals; the intense close-ups; the balletic action and the driving anger; the saturated color and the exotic locales. Heat. TV’s Miami Vice and the ahead-of-its-time series Crime Story that was made for binge watching before the medium was capable. Daniel Day Lewis running, running, running shirtless toward the camera in Last of the Mohicans.

But the 71-year-old director has jumped the shark – Public Enemies in 2009 was schizophrenic, half terrific and half awful. Mann’s movie version of his TV trendsetter Miami Vice was misbegotten from the drawing board. And this movie, originally called Cyber, feels less cutting-edge than grandpa coping with that revolutionary thing, the interwebs.

An unintentionally laughable international thriller, Blackhat, the term for malicious hackers, tries to graft Mann’s themes onto a stale, convoluted plot. When an amoral hacker blows up a Chinese nuclear reactor with poison code and capitalizes on artificially running up soy futures, the Chinese and American governments form an uneasy alliance to thwart the mystery man (and create a Hollywood movie with mainland China appeal).

Enter Thor‘s stolid Chris Hemsworth as Waspy Nicholas Hathaway, an imprisoned cyber criminal wearing the whitest undershirt behind barbed wire. The U.S. government, fronted by an underused Viola Davis, expedites Hathaway’s furlough because HE IS THE ONLY ONE ON THE GLOBE that can snare the blackhat hacker. Never in the history of math has a computer nerd had cause to remove his shirt so many times.

Hathaway reunites with his MIT roommate, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), now a major Chinese official. The pair travels from the pen in Penn., to Los Angeles’s Korea Town to China and beyond to capture the reactor-blowing, stock-manipulating, code-writing fiend. Along for the ride is Chen’s sister, Lien Chen (Mei Tang, an actress with a following in the lucrative Chinese market). The character is a networking genius in a mini-skirt whose biggest problem seems to be keeping her hair out of her mouth when the wind blows.

There’s a Mann meets John Woo man-to-man moment when Chen and Hathaway embrace on the tarmac post prison. The cameras slow and swirl, and the pair embrace in a long, warm bear hug. These ex-roommates know each other intimately, and they have a deep intellectual and emotional bond. But it never develops. Instead, Hathaway starts looking at Chen’s sister like a man who just got out of jail — because he is a man that just got out of jail. What makes this abrupt emotional shift so weird is that the brother’s role immediately shrinks in direct proportion to the sister’s expansion. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to suggest that the sister is an awkward substitute for the love that dares not creep into the heterosexual plotline.

That aside, and the absolute lack of chemistry in the relationship between the mammoth Hemsworth and the dainty Wei Tang that gives a new meaning to the word ‘crush,’ the movie seems to stall any time it contains exposition relating to anything the least bit technical. It’s as if the filmmakers are teaching AP Chemistry to kindergartners.

And, then, when the big climax arrives, the final battle is not one of computer wits and cyber wizardry. Instead, the brawny Hathaway, having suited up by wrapping thick magazines around his torso and arming himself with carpentry tools like MacGyver, heads off for solo hand-to-hand combat. He battles a corps of men with automatic weapons in the middle of the touristy backdrop of a Jakarta parade that adds color to a movie that has long since lost its juice.

Whether you get technology or not, Mann’s cyber thriller does not compute.

Thelma Adams, Senior Film Editor

January 14, 2014

 


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