Blackhat Instructs, “We Gotta Grieve Later.” A Tall Task Indeed

by Matthew Cabe


(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s hard to tell if Chris Hemsworth’s complete lack of personality in Blackhat is the fault of the actor himself, first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, director Michael Mann, or if it’s an intentional play on the stereotype that surrounds real computer hackers. If the latter is the case, little effort is made by anyone involved to rectify the situation during the film’s 133 minute runtime.

Hemsworth (better known by his real name, Thor) plays Nick Hathaway, who is the most gifted (and sexiest and most buff and coolest) computer hacker the world has ever seen. Oddly, despite his talents, Nick doesn’t think much of himself. When asked what he’ll do “once this is all over” he responds, “Fix TVs and garage door openers.” And he’s not being coy, by the way; that knack evades him.

The “all this” referred to during the question is Nick’s attempts to thwart further cyber attacks after a fellow hacker introduced malware into the computer system of a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong that overheated the plant’s cooling pumps and resulted in an explosion. Shortly thereafter, the same hacker infiltrates the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago and makes a killing in Soy Futures.

Nick is recruited out of his jail cell not only because he’s the best man for the job, but more importantly because he co-wrote the original code (that was modified and used in both attacks) with his MIT roommate Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who is now a Captain in the Chinese Army assigned to the case on their end. The old college chums are reunited upon Nick’s release and share a hearty embrace that’s capped off with Chen affectionately muttering, “So good to see you, bro.”

Their crackpot team is rounded out by Chen’s younger sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), the tragically wasted Viola Davis as FBI agent Carol Barrett, and a U.S. Marshal named Jessup (Holt McCallany), who tags along to ensure Nick doesn’t engage in any tomfoolery as they search for the blackhat hacker.

Along the way, Nick’s charmless demeanor wears down the defenses of Chen Lien, and the two begin a clothed and obligatory and emotionless sexual relationship. Lien, also an adept hacker, clearly sees something in Nick that non-hackers aren’t able to detect. She’s drawn to his alluring antisocial behavior, and the two spend a great deal of screen time gazing blankly at one another like cardboard cutout loners behind a high school gymnasium.

That is until Chen finds out about Nick’s trysting with his sister, which leads to a nonsensical conversation in a helicopter and Chen admitting, “I’ve rarely seen her happier.” despite the fact that he was clueless to their relationship, or her happiness, until he walked in on them in bed together just moments before.

But your reviewer digresses. Nick gets his team closer and closer to the blackhat through the bogarting of computers he conveniently finds in apartments and Thai restaurants. When they get too close, a shootout occurs that leaves a Chinese policeman, Alex Trang (Andy On) dead. Risking his own life, Nick leaps through a barrage of gunfire to mourn for Trang as he bleeds out from the neck. It’s an attempt to prove that Nick is, in fact, human, but the moment comes off as pointlessly dangerous and awkward given that he only just met Trang no more than ten minutes earlier.

Also awkward are 1) Numerous shots of actors staring off just beyond the camera for long stretches at images not important enough to reveal. 2) The audible dead air that pervades many scenes as Nick and his cohorts think hard about what to do next. 3) An NSA agent who naively opens a suspicious email and allows Nick to hack into a secret NSA program. 4) A climactic scene that involves a showdown with a “villain” (who resembles Dr. Jacoby of Twin Peaks fame and channels the combat skills of Mother Teresa) during a crowded parade in Jakarta in which several citizens are used as human shields (by our hero) after they fail to run for their lives seemingly because they were incapable of interpreting foreign gunfire into their native tongue.

And finally, your reviewer doesn’t normally delve into discussions involving the technical trifles of moviemaking, but the sound issues in Blackhat are problematic to say the least. There are multiple scenes during which mouths aren’t copacetic with the words they let out. In other scenes, the dialogue of characters who are offscreen is louder than that of their onscreen counterparts. And in yet another scene, Chen Lien’s voice actually gets louder after she turns away from the camera.

This might come across as nitpicky, but in a $70-million-dollar film that made good use of its budget by employing actual hackers to keep the proceedings as authentic as possible, it’s logical to expect something as routine as decent sound synchronization.

With Blackhat though, what’s expected is tossed by the wayside in favor of bland filmmaking about an even blander character. That this lackluster effort comes from Michael Mann (the director behind the stripped-down brilliance of Heat and Collateral) makes the film all the more disappointing. Grieving comes early—long before Nick says, “We gotta grieve later.”