You ever see a garbage truck unload? It backs up slowly and stops, the back door drops, and a cascade of wet, smelly junk comes rolling and tumbling out. Releasing a movie in January is something like that. Aside from the 2014 releases going wide following Oscar-qualifying runs in Los Angeles, what makes it into theaters in January is generally pretty raw merchandise.
So the January release of “Blackhat,” the latest film from a major American director, Michael Mann (“Heat,” “The Last of the Mohicans”) was a real mystery. And it remained a mystery until about 10 or 15 minutes into the film; whereupon, the mental image returned, of that garbage truck backing up very slowly ...
“Blackhat” is a film about cybercrime that is, at first, difficult to follow, and later, perfectly clear and preposterous. A hacker or a team of hackers causes a Chinese nuclear reactor to blow, and China and the United States team up to stop them before they can strike again. That means springing from prison the one genius hacker smart enough to beat the hackers at their own game. He’s played by Chris Hemsworth, because that’s what computer geniuses look like in the movies.
Mann suffocates “Blackhat” with style. The trouble starts in the opening scene, in which he shows how the Remote Access Trojan makes its way from the hackers to the nuclear reactor. He does this by having the camera go below the floor and then zip along miles of cable and, of course, we have no idea what we’re looking at, and it’s not particularly interesting.
Throughout, the camera work is choppy, full of movement and odd cuts, all done in a frenzy that can’t qualify as vigorous, but rather like showing off. Or maybe it’s just a failed attempt to add excitement where there is none. Meanwhile, even as Mann is practically doing somersaults with the camera, the soundtrack is doing nothing but creating distance, with a steady synthesized humming and buzzing that makes you feel you’re in waiting room with the worst fluorescent lighting in history.
The first half of “Blackhat” is numbing — it takes an act of will to stay awake. It’s just a lot of people looking at computer screens and talking about fragments of malware and IP addresses. Nicholas (Hemsworth) strikes up a romance with his friend’s sister (Tei Wang), and that’s very nice, though for them, not us.
If the second half is better, it’s only in the sense that silly is less awful than boring.
Chris Hemsworth is a solid leading man and in no way to blame. Maybe someday he’ll get to play Bill Gates. And Tei Wang is charming . But “Blackhat” is pretty much nonsense, which Mann directs with such misplaced energy and with such little natural instinct for the material.