The quickest way to determine how you will feel about Blackhat is to take the following pop quiz: in ten seconds, without the aid of Google or IMDb, name as many Michael Mann films as you can.

If you rattled off four or more titles, you are a fan, and you will like his latest just fine, even if you rate it a tad below what you consider his best work. If you said, “Well, there’s Heat and . . . ” you may just end up comparing Blackhat to more generic action fare and like it all the more. You may even think my three stars a bit stingy. If your reply was some variant on “I just like movies, I don’t remember or care who directs them,” then you will probably think this one is slow-moving and hard to follow at times.

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang in 'Blackhat'
Image: Universal Pictures

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang in 'Blackhat'

The script feels like something that could easily have been a Bond or Bourne movie treated to a character name search-and-replace. Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is a convicted hacker who is furloughed after a cyber-terrorist causes the meltdown of a nuclear power plant in China and a near-miss at another target in the United States. A Chinese computer expert (Leehom Wang) is sent to partner with an American FBI agent (Viola Davis), and he convinces her that they need the help of Hathaway, who happens to be his former college roommate.

The middle act is fairly conventional storytelling. Characters dribble out small bits of exposition while looking at computer screens in order to explain each step towards the inevitable confrontation between our guy and the diabolical mastermind. Computers have become the black boxes of movie scripts. Nobody except the hackers really knows how they work, so they can be used to explain just about anything. Get a good-looking actor to scowl intently through his bangs as he types furiously, show a bunch of flashing numbers in glowing green type, and then have him say something like, “I’ve got you now” or “We’ll never get behind that firewall.” Presto, you have a ready-made explanation for why and how the action starts and stops.

Hathaway shows up at a seemingly impenetrable assaulted site and figures out how the hackers got in—not by using his computer skills, but simply by asking a few questions that any minimally competent law-enforcement agent would ask. Here and at other points, the film’s script suffers a bit from the tired tendency to make supporting characters who are supposed to be smart do some dumb things so that the protagonist can appear to be a savant by simply doing the obvious.

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Blackhat also introduces a love story between Hathaway and the Chinese agent’s sister (Wei Tang), either because it realized the middle section was lacking tension or because it needed an excuse to get Hemsworth to take his shirt off. Perhaps this is meant to humanize Hathaway, as though we need more reason to root for him than that he is fighting to save lives.

All those comments are about the script, though. And who goes to Michael Mann movies for the dialogue? If you do, there’s at least one good scene. It plays like the inverse of DeNiro’s famous “don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat” speech from Heat. But if emotions here are as complicated as they are in some previous films, the way the characters express them is a bit more rote. “I decide what’s for me,” the woman insists.

“Would I take you where I’m going?” the man replies.

Viola Davis and Chris Hemsworth in 'Blackhat'
Image: Universal Pictures

Viola Davis and Chris Hemsworth in 'Blackhat'

Although the film’s dialogues lacks some of the sparse but iconic dialogue of Manhunter, The Insider, or even Last of the Mohicans (all of which, unlike Blackhat, give Mann some form of writing credit), there is rarely a ten second interval in which there is not an interesting or engaging camera angle, shot composition, or editing choice. Mann takes shots we’ve seen a hundred times before in other movies—a helicopter taking off, a SWAT team getting out of a van, a pair of people coming to the end of a map’s directions and looking around for a hidden clue—and helps us to really look at them.

Blackhat may be so lovingly and artistically crafted that it fools some viewers into judging it as an art film. It’s not. If there is any doubt about that, the film’s climax is conventional enough and its denouement brief enough to convince us that the conclusion is there to end the story, rather than to hammer home whatever moral messages or subtle themes might be lurking. I think the film’s ending is a bit more ambiguous than it might look to those gathering up their popcorn and beating the crowds to the exit; it’s just that Mann is willing to convey what awaits our protagonist-who-has-finally-earned-the-right-to-be-called-hero through a few direct but clear visual and editing choices, rather than through the typical Hollywood post-climax “let me explain it all to you” speech.

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It might be less ambitious than we want from its first-tier director, but Blackhat is still artistically made. That’s worth applauding. Any one of the principals could have phoned it in and cashed a paycheck, but it sure looks like they worked hard to make it the best version it could be of the kind of movie it is.

And they succeeded.

Caveat Spectator

People with different sensibilities require different trigger warnings, but Blackhat felt like a tame “R” in today’s marketplace. There were some sexual situations, but they were of the (now seemingly) old-fashioned style: kissing and groping while clothed, cut to participants in bed postcoitus. The main couple is shown in bed three times, but aside from seeing Hemsworth shirtless a couple of times, there is no nudity. I noticed a sprinkling of blue language, but nothing like the steady stream of f-bombs one has come to expect in “R” rated comedies or slicker actions movies. The violence is the thing that moves the ratings needle here. There is heavy gunplay including some close ups of blood splatter. Add to that a couple of hand-to-hand fight scenes, and the rating is perfectly warranted. The most disturbing image was probably that of some characters caught in a nasty explosion with lots of shrapnel. The effects of violence are shown quickly; Mann doesn’t link over “money” shots the way more exploitative directors do. When violence comes, it is abrupt. It is meant to shock rather than titillate, and it does. The film is probably not appropriate for young teenagers, but they might well self-select out of it anyway as it might be a little too talky for them. Then again, it’s tamer than most video games, so it all depends on what your point of reference is. I might relent if middle or older teenagers were really keen on seeing it, but I tend to be on the permissive side of such debates.

Kenneth R. Morefield is an associate professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(5 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For violence and some language.)
Directed By
Michael Mann
Run Time
2 hours 13 minutes
Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis
Theatre Release
January 16, 2015 by Universal Pictures
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