Back in the 1980s and 90s, Michael Mann was one of the best and most exciting directors working in Hollywood. His canon of impressive work includes Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider and Collateral. In the last decade however he seems to have been semi-retired, unwisely revisiting his TV glory days with a big screen version of Miami Vice in 2006 and then having slightly more luck with Public Enemies in 2009. The new global cyberterrorism thriller Blackhat is his first film in six years, and the rust shows – badly.
When your opening sequence involving a nuclear reactor going into meltdown after being remotely hacked ends up feeling dull and anti-climactic, you must surely know that you have a problem. For the first half hour a witless plot is perfunctorily sketched in with no detail or conviction, while the Mann we knew and loved of old seems startlingly absent. He’s apparently content overseeing some electron microscope FX scenes of packets of information scurrying across microchips and down cable wires that might have been eye-catching 20 years ago but which now just seem dated and tiresome.
Fortunately Mann’s better visual instincts do eventually kick in, and once we arrive in LA after dark the film takes on something of the old vibrant look that he does so well as a director. This rolls into effective street-level location filming in Hong Kong, and Mann can certainly still deliver when it comes to grippingly realistic and visceral gunfights. However he unwisely allows CGI to over-egg the slo-mo in a pivotal ambush scene which undermines the realism he has striven for in the rest of the film. The film then unravels badly in the overblown final act with a move to Indonesia before coming a cropper with a misjudged climactic confrontation that feels like it’s been produced from the half-completed storyboard of an abandoned sequence in a mid-level Bond film.
If the director is not firing on all cylinders, then he’s fatally undermined by a weak script that feels like an average 40-minute episode of CSI expanded to over two hours by the insertion of clichéd plot beats provided courtesy of a random script generator. These elements not only feel old and tired, they don’t even connect with each other or anything around them and simply play out as if they’ve been thrown in purely for the heck of it. There’s no payoff, no character arcs – no characters, come to that. When even an outstanding actress such as Viola Davis can’t manage to breath any life into her role as FBI Special Agent Carol Barrett then you really are out of options.
The towering, musclebound Chris Hemsworth is no one’s idea of a computer geek even before his Nicholas Hathaway suddenly morphs into a super-capable Bond/Bauer/Bourne clone halfway through the film. Hemsworth does deserve credit for simply gritting his teeth, setting his face to ‘grimly determined but otherwise blank’ and getting the job done with the least amount of embarrassment possible. Leading lady Tang Wei does as good a job as she can as network specialist Chen Lein given that the script seems to have a different idea of who her character is and what she’s there for in every single scene, while Leehom Wang is one of the few actually sympathetic presences as Chinese investigator Chen Dawai although he is inevitably held back by having an anaemic amount to do despite some promising set-up. The two main villains (Ritchie Coster as Kassar, Yorick van Wageningen as the mastermind behind the hacking) both completely lack any presence or discernible character which fatally undermines any drama when ‘things get personal’ for Hathaway, as they invariably do in films of this ilk with such poor imaginations. And what the point of Holt McCallany’s Deputy US Marshal Jessup was in the film utterly defeats me: I hope he got a good holiday out of the gig at least.
The film gets some bonus points for one of the better, more accurate representations of computer coding and hacking I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie. However all this does is show once again how no one has yet been able to bring this sort of thing to life on screen – ultimately it’s still people staring intently at small screens and pecking at keyboards and it’s just not a thrilling prospect, although a shot from underneath the keyboard is a very nice try and a rare full-Mann bravura moment. The rest of the time the film seems determined to throw away any possible moments that could conceivably rise above the meh-ness: a ghostly walk through the irradiated remains of the nuclear reactor for example could have been so much more but as presented it barely registers.
It all feels like everyone came into this film lacking confidence in it, and then any enthusiasm and motivation quickly drained out as they completely lost all remaining faith so that by the final act everyone’s just in a hurry to get this wrapped, put it behind them and move on to something – anything – else. It sucks the energy out of the room in which it’s showing: I’ve seen shoestring direct-to-DVD amateur efforts with more life and passion to them than Blackhat manages on a $70 million studio budget. Even forewarned by other reviews and with my expectations suitably lowered pretty far down, this film still managed to stumble while trying and failing to clear the bar, which is a really sad thing to have to say about any Michael Mann film.
The DVD is a physical manifestation of this disappointment. It’s the very definition of a barebones release even down to the menu screen which is straight out of Universal’s set of basic templates that only require a still from the film to be dragged and dropped into position and it’s done. The film’s picture quality is fine, although Mann’s predilection here for degraded, jerky digital footage means that you absolutely do not want to spend any money on the high definition Blu-ray version.
The audio however is bafflingly flawed. In some parts – gunshots, crashes, explosions – it’s nice and robust, coming in from all directions as it should; the throbbing electronic background score is also generally very effective. But there are several noticeable drop-outs, and some real problems with the dialogue in which the sound levels and clarity vary wildly even within a character’s block of dialogue, from inaudible to booming to muffled. There’s also some of the worst post-dubbing I’ve heard in years. It’s a technical shoddiness that genuinely amazes me in this day and age, and it’s not just the DVD mastering to blame as I’ve since checked out reviews of the Blu-ray and found the same remarks made there, too. It’s likely that the film ran in theatres like this, in which case you have to wonder whether parts of the post-production had been left to the office junior to take care of.
It goes without saying that the DVD has no extras, which is actually something of a blessing. The Blu-ray contains three featurettes, one with cast and crew discussing ‘the cyber threat’, another about the importance of shooting in real locations rather than using set-bound green screen all the time, and a final one about the challenges of ‘building authentic characters from the ground-up’ – which to be fair is something they seem to know something about from making this film, seeing how it utterly defeated them on this occasion.
Oh, and for good measure, the original DVD that I had also had an error at the layer transition point (the start of chapter 14, around the 1:23.30 mark) which froze the playback and meant I had to miss a portion of the film by jumping ahead. To be honest, dealing with this was the most exciting part of the entire evening.
The film has been available to buy or rent on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from June 22 2015.