Every time I go into a film released in January — and I’m not talking about movies like Selma or American Sniper that expand nationwide after limited release in December — I hold out a smidgen of hope that it will upend the well-proven theory that the first month of the year is the dumping ground for movies that studios know are bad.
For a while, Blackhat, the latest from once-untouchable director Michael Mann, seems to deliver on that hope. It’s a computer-hacker thriller in which the imprisoned Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is legally busted out of jail by the U.S. government when a hacker code he created is used in an attack on a Chinese nuclear plant.
Either realizing his own limitations or that of the story, director Michael Mann soon turns the movie toward less-than-cerebral thrills.
With Chinese computer expert Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who was also Hathaway’s college roommate, and FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) as his constant companions, Hathaway travels around the world to track down who was responsible for the hack and what his end goal may be.
When done right, computer-hacking stories can be wonderfully suspenseful. And Mann, working from the script by Morgan Davis Foehl, keeps things interesting for the first half hour or so. But, either realizing his own limitations or that of the story, Mann soon turns the movie toward less-than-cerebral thrills.
Most of this can be credited to the lack of character development. Other than the fact that he’s a computer genius who attended M.I.T., we know virtually nothing about Hathaway. So the origin of his brooding demeanor and surprising combat skills remain a mystery, rendering his later heroics almost pointless.
But it’s when things start to veer toward the ridiculous that the movie really goes off the rails. Hathaway starts a relationship with Chen’s sister, Lien (Wei Tang), which might be interesting if it made any sense whatsoever. And a gunfight in the third act might be the most nonsensical battle ever to take place outside an Expendables movie.
Still, Hemsworth, as he’s proven in the Thor and Avengers movies, is a formidable presence even if his character is unknowable. And it’s always a pleasure to be in the company of Davis, even if she gets to do little aside from acting exasperated.
Because hacking has been a top-line news item in recent months, Blackhat — which, if you must know, is the term for a hacker up to no good — had the potential to be an of-the-moment-type film. Instead, it’s a forgettable film that makes you wonder where Mann’s magic went.