Movies

TR Review: Blackhat Proves You CAN Polish a Turd

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The metaphorical ball of human waste in question is a script about global hacking schemes, written by Morgan Davis Foehl – formerly an assistant editor on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry – that’s badly paced, bungles dialogue constantly, and blatantly panders to China and Malaysia with the obvious intent of getting tax credits and additional theatrical bookings there (Transformers 4 at least had a sense of humor about leaping through those hoops, while this is incessantly dour). The polish is brought by director Michael Mann, he of Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice, who treats this crap like it’s Oscar-worthy material and fails to realize that when you season a Big Mac like it’s a fancy steak, you almost ruin the Big Mac as it is, while not persuading anybody it’s a porterhouse.

Mann’s genius is to keep hooking me back into the movie right when I’m about to give up on it utterly. Specifically, there’s a key point about an hour and a half in where everything’s starting to get super-lame, then suddenly he thrusts us into the middle of one of those street shootouts he loves to do, and it’s loud and it’s awesome and upends the entire dynamic of the story. The rest of the time, he’s trying to get you to believe that Chris Hemsworth is both the world’s greatest hacker and a total badass in a fight who’s practically bulletproof – and doing so without so much as a wink or a nod that this is totally absurd. Mann has never really displayed a sense of humor in his movies, and he isn’t about to start now (the sole joke, a line about Santa Claus, is blown when Hemsworth garbles it in his horrible fake American accent) but no amount of slow camera moves, blue lights, long takes and ambient music by Trent Reznor’s pal Atticus Ross can add depth to a kiddie pool.

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“Hey, Asian audiences, we’re in Asia! Love us!”

The best thing about Blackhat – which my wife has referred to from day one as “Asshat” – is the way Mann tries to make hacking visually interesting by going to a microscopic level to show data passing through circuits and wires. It looks like Tron or The Matrix without any of the people in it, and has a hypnotic quality that makes you think, “Hey, this guy’s a pretty decent visual stylist, and he can do better than pairing a miscast superhero actor with a Chinese love interest (Tang Wei) whose English is terrible but will make China love the movie more. Oh, wait, no.”

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“I shall certainly blend in here”

I wish this were as amusingly terrible as it sounds, but Mann is so good at composing shots and setting a mood that you can’t really laugh at what he’s done, even when he has Hemsworth walk right into an Indonesian crime scene using the amazingly brilliant disguise of a baseball cap. You just sigh that he’s missing the point of this material; played pulpy and tongue in cheek – take a second to imagine 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a computer genius, for example – it could work, albeit not on the level Mann wants it to. Instead, it barely suffices.

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Practicing for Amanda Waller by bossing Thor around

I think the goal here was to attempt “Heat with hackers” – a battle of wills between two criminal chess players who hardly see each other face to face for most of the movie. And it is a plus that when the ultimate bad guy is revealed, he’s not a surprise celebrity making an unbilled cameo, but a genuinely unfamiliar face (even looking at the cast list, I can’t figure out which one he is). It’s just hard to buy that this hacking duel would encompass as much globe-trotting as a James Bond movie, and maybe even more bullets and nuclear meltdowns (a scene where Hemsworth has to enter a radiation hot zone establishes all the classic rules needed to set the suspense in motion, then fails to have anyone but the equivalent of a Star Trek redshirt even come close to breaking them.).

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Mann must have been thrilled (not!) when he was informed that his movie would open during the theatrical wasteland that is January. It’s unfortunate that he deserves it. Regardless of whether Hemsworth is miscast or simply badly directed, Mann must take the blame. I can’t begrudge the director for wanting to make a living, and I presume he can’t live on Oscar-bait prestige pictures alone – but regardless of how great his style is, he shouldn’t be telling stories if, even with his talents, he can’t make them good ones.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist