Blackhat Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis. Directed by Michael Mann. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Michael Mann’s best movies (Heat, Collateral, The Insider) are a masterful combination of style and substance, gorgeously shot, artfully orchestrated blends of thrilling plots, compelling characters and stunning images. But that balance has become increasingly tilted in Mann’s later films, and nowhere is it more apparent than in Blackhat, a stylistic treat that is essentially incoherent when it comes to plotting, characterization and dialogue. Mann’s love of digital cinematography that clearly looks digital reaches its apex here, and it matches perfectly with the subject matter of modern-day cyber-criminals (as opposed to clashing with the period story in Mann’s last film, 2009’s Public Enemies). The score by frequent Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross and his brother Leo is moody and tense. There are certain wordless sequences—brutal fights, sensual love scenes, complex computational maneuvers—that make a strong visceral impact, but they don’t connect to form a cohesive narrative.
The movie might have been better if nobody said a word, since the performances are consistently unimpressive, starting with star Chris Hemsworth as a hacker named Hathaway. He’s furloughed from prison to help an FBI agent (Viola Davis) and a Chinese official (Leehom Wang) track down the person responsible for a cyber attack on a Chinese nuclear power plant. The globe-trotting plot makes little sense, though, nor does it feel authentic to the way malicious hackers (known as black hats) operate in 2015. But Mann doesn’t seem to care about that, instead languishing over glimpses of the primal attraction between Hathaway and Lien (Tang Wei), a Chinese data analyst, and staging improbable but beautiful set pieces like an expedition into the power plant’s ruins or a gunfight in the midst of a cultural festival in Jakarta.
The dialogue is as weak as the plotting, and between Hemsworth’s shaky American accent and Tang’s difficulty expressing herself in English, none of it is delivered convincingly. When Hathaway eventually discovers the extent of the evil hacker’s plan, it’s an anticlimactic conclusion to a story that was never engaging to begin with. Even as the movie limps to its dissatisfying resolution, though, Mann delivers every underwhelming development with style.