Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review: "Blackhat"

Michael Mann is a sumptuous visual stylist ("Heat," "Manhunter") who sometimes has trouble with the ABCs of storytelling. Case in point: "Blackhat," a cyber thriller set mostly in China and Indonesia that wavers between confusion and utter incoherence.

When you're not struggling to comprehend dialogue uttered by non-native English speakers, you'll find yourself trying to remember all the various plot threads and centers of power at play. This movie is a double-dip into ponderous bewilderment.

Chris Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a hacker doing 15 years' hard time in prison for past antics. And right now I know you're thinking to yourself, "Chris Hemsworth? The blond dude who plays Thor? Looks like a surfer on steroids? Not exactly what I picture a computer nerd looking like."

And it's true, Hemsworth is believable neither as a guy hunched over a laptop typing code out at a furious pace, nor as a toughened inmate with killer hand-to-hand combat skills who somehow manages to maintain salon-quality hair and a torso completely waxed of man fur. That prison must have a helluva commissary.

Anyway, the story (screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl) starts with a cyber attack on a Chinese nuclear reactor resulting in an explosion and near meltdown. This is illustrated by a long, tedious CG animation sequence taking us deep into the inner recesses of a computer chip, which resembles the labyrinthine goblin tunnels of "The Lord of the Rings."

The Chinese and American governments reluctantly agree to team up -- or "liaise," as they call it, which sounds dirtier than it is -- and decide that Hathaway is the only guy in the world who can  break the code of the mysterious villain, or blackhat. He's recruited by Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a captain in the Chinese anti-hacking agency who also happened to be Hathaway's college roommate.

It seems that back when they were young and foolish the pair wrote the RAT program -- remote access tool -- that the blackhat has incorporated into his stratagem. So they feel a sort of obligation to bring him in. Plus, Hathaway gets sprung from jail if they're successful.

Tagging along, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, is Chen's kid sister, Lien (Wei Tang), who soon falls madly in love with Hathaway, adding an extra wrinkle to his dilemma: if he doesn't catch the bad guy, he goes back to prison and their romance dies.

Viola Davis has a solid turn as Barrett, the FBI agent assigned to the case, who knows when to lead the dog and when to give him slack. I also liked Holt McCallany as the gruff, stolid U.S. marshal; officially, he's there to make sure Hathaway doesn't escape but morphs into his defender.

Soon the intrepid group is flying to all sorts of locales, running down leads and getting into scrapes with henchmen. Hathaway proves to be an old-school combatant, preferring magazines strapped to his body and an improvised shiv instead of body armor and a gun. Kinda strange, considering they're able to procure a private jet, new computers and vehicles on the fly.

Occasionally "Blackhat" finds some genuinely tense moments, such as when Hathaway must hack into a super-secret NSA database to further their manhunt, or a couple of shootouts with jarring results. Here Mann reveals his chops as a filmmaker who instinctively understands the weight and flow of action scenes.

The rest of the time, though, it's an overlong head-scratcher that's pretty to look at but makes little sense.

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