Filmmaker Michael Mann has a way of taking the hoariest Hollywood devices — a shootout, a chase scene — and shaping them into something elegantly artistic.
That approach works for quite a stretch in the moody tech thriller “Blackhat.” But even Mann (“Heat,” “Collateral”) can’t figure out how to bring much weight to this momentarily diverting bundle of style.
Teutonic hunk Chris Hemsworth plays Hathaway, a virtuoso hacker temporarily released from prison to help an international alliance hunt down a fellow “blackhat” whose evil laptop skills caused a meltdown at a Chinese nuclear plant.
FBI experts realize this attack is merely a warmup, but they also know partnering with the volatile Hathaway is like “inviting him into the hen house.” That’s why agent Barrett (Viola Davis) and federal marshal Jessup (Holt McCallany) are assigned to guard his every move.
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But he’s got a strong ally in Chen, the Chinese security expert (Wang Leehom) spearheading the alliance, who happens to be his old roommate at MIT. Chen also brings along his gorgeous sister (Wei Tang), a network engineer aiding the case.
As the manhunt leads this team from Chicago to Hong Kong to Jakarta, the mysterious bad guy and his murderous goons always seem to be a step ahead.
Hemsworth (“Thor”) is somehow more convincing as the mythical God of Thunder than as a computer expert. It’s a stretch for People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive to play someone “ordinary.” That’s probably why Mann (working from a script by Morgan Davis Foehl) attempts to turn what on paper appears to be a very hermitic, snarky role into a cross between Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and eventually Rambo.
Mann alternates plenty of running, jumping and hiding with staring at computer screens. He intersperses these with macro tracking shots of fiber optic cables that move like light cycles from “Tron.” Cluttered? Sure. Yet once the exposition is out of the way, “Blackhat” features so much stylized momentum that it’s easy to get caught up in the far-fetched hoopla.
The director leans on his supporting actors to fill in the underwritten gaps. Leehom and Tang (both of whom displayed their sensual confidence in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”) add something special to this espionage formula. They appear as cool and exotic as the travelogue locations, especially since half their conversations are in subtitled Mandarin. There’s a shorthand to Hemsworth and Tang’s inevitable romance that works despite little explanation, and it certainly introduces some needed emotion via a relationship triangle.
The really memorable moments don’t come from the cyber-babble plot but from the throwaway details that characterize Mann’s filmmaking: the charred decay of machines in the nuclear disaster site; a cacophony of echoes during a gun battle in a circular tunnel; huge faces on billboards that seem to be peering in through the team’s hotel windows.
As always, the picture is bathed in the “Miami Vice” look: wet streets that reflect crisp yellows, blues and greens. It’s as if everything is lit by neon.
“Blackhat” abandons its stylistic foothold — and arguably its credibility — during a dopey finale. For some reason, the hero and villain who have spent the entire movie proving how tech-savvy they are decide to settle the score with a knife fight. Ignore the fact that Hathaway has enough money to purchase black market passports but apparently not enough to buy a pistol.
Instead he tapes filed-down screwdrivers to his torso in hopes of wading through a phalanx of armed mercenaries to take out his primary target. Wouldn’t he prefer a more computer-oriented strike?
After relying on mood, intrigue and paranoia, “Blackhat” abruptly transforms into a Hollywood hack job.
Rated R | Time: 2:13