Friday, January 16, 2015

Blackhat: A crumpled cyber-joke

Blackhat (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Rarely has a film worked so hard, on so many levels, to be dumb, dull and mean-spirited.

I cannot imagine why an A-list director such as Michael Mann attached himself to Morgan Davis Foehl’s thoroughly ludicrous, bonehead-stupid script. Nobody with an ounce of savvy could have seen gold in this dross; if green-lighting this sort of puerile junk truly represents corporate thinking, then Universal Pictures is run by monkeys.

On the run and trying to evade pursuit in Hong Kong's colorful market district, our heroes
— from left, Nick (Chris Hemsworth), Lien (Wei Tang) and Jessup (Holt McCallany) —
quietly make their way to the safety of a modest apartment. But can they be truly safe,
in a world where everybody's movements are tracked by cameras and computers?
Foehl has worked as an assistant editor, mostly on television, for roughly a decade. Blackhat is his first script.

It shows.

He makes every rookie mistake, and quite grandiosely: from a relentless barrage of computer-oriented techno-babble, to seriously — seriously — misjudging the impact of his malicious tightening of the dramatic screws. Tuesday evening’s preview audience grew downright hostile as we hit the third act, and with good reason; we weren’t merely betrayed, we were sucker-punched.

Not that Mann doesn’t deserve his share of the blame. Under better circumstances, a thriller dealing with cyber-terrorism should be able to ride the obvious promotional bump delivered by headlines still echoing from the recent Sony hack. Indeed, the serendipity is almost spooky, on par with 1979’s The China Syndrome being released 12 days before the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

But we know Blackhat is destined to be a stinker, when Mann opens his film with a protracted, electron’s-point-of-view sfx ride that purportedly shows what it’s like, deep within a server’s countless circuit boards, when a rogue command activates. The whole sequence feels like a what-the-hell cast-off from Tron, and it brings this new film to a grinding halt ... before it even starts.

And, to compound the felony, Mann soon indulges in this tedious exercise a second time.

A bloated thriller that clocks in at a butt-numbing 133 minutes can’t afford that sort of self-indulgence; it denotes a director who isn’t in control of his own movie. Which, in Mann’s case here, quickly becomes obvious.

Events kick off in Hong Kong, when a malicious hacker destroys the cooling system at the Chai Wan Nuclear Power Plant, causing a containment vessel breach and near-meltdown. People die; many more are destined for the same fate.

Shortly thereafter, Chicago’s Mercantile Trade Exchange is hacked, sending soy futures skyrocketing during a single session.

Oddly, though, nobody claims credit for either act of cyber-sabotage; no demands are made. This is viewed as quite unsettling by law-enforcement analysts on both sides of the globe: People’s Liberation Army cyber-defense officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), in Hong Kong; and FBI special agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), in the States.

In a rare burst of detente, the two agencies team up: a nice touch in this otherwise silly narrative. The MIT-educated Dawai recognizes some of the code recovered in the Chicago hack, as a bit of larkish software written by his long-ago college roommate, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). That makes Nick invaluable to their investigation, but there’s a problem: He’s locked away in a federal penitentiary for his own “blackhat” hacking misdeeds.

Cue Hemsworth’s obligatory, If-you-want-me-badly-enough-you’ll-issue-a-full-pardon speech. Which, to his credit, he issues with satisfyingly smug assurance.

In fairness, Foehl concocts several enjoyable moments of so-there dialog, ably delivered by both Nick and Barrett. The latter, in particular, has a delightfully waspish “discussion” with a condescending stock-exchange suit. Nobody delivers a put-down better than Davis.

Wanting another colleague whom he can trust, Dawai enlists the assistance of his sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), herself a skilled network engineer. In order to keep an eye on Nick, Barrett adds deputy U.S. Marshall Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany) to their side of the equation.

And thus the hunt begins ... and, almost immediately, Foehl’s script crumbles like a stale cookie.

The twisty, so-called clues are little more than an excuse for the sort of world travelogue normally associated with a James Bond film. Our heroes start in Chicago, detour briefly to Los Angeles — mostly so that Hemsworth’s Nick can demonstrate the street-fighting skills he picked up in prison — and then enjoy lengthier stays in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Jakarta.

Along the way, low-level good guys and bad guys are dispatched with a ruthlessness that makes us worry just how bloodthirsty Foehl’s story will get. (Answer: Unacceptably so.) We learn not to bond with anybody engaging, such as Archie Kao’s Shum or Andy On’s Trang; they’re obviously doomed.

Indeed, nobody seems to survive an encounter with mercenary assassin Elias Kassar (Ritchie Coster), who even kills his own colleagues in order to protect his scruffy, bad-boy hacker boss, Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen).

Coster deserves credit for making Kassar persuasively ruthless, but van Wageningen’s Sadak is a joke: a cartoon über-villain who wouldn’t be a credible baddie in a lesser 007 outing. His behavior, as this narrative lurches from one act to the next, is a perfect example of the idiot plot in action ... which progresses only because each and every character behaves like a complete idiot at all times.

Point being: Sadak is established as a clandestine, meticulously careful planner ... and yet, solely because Foehl’s script insists as much, our villain turns into a one-man Dumb & Dumber as we grind toward the inevitable climax.

Hemsworth has serious action-hero chops, as proven during the aforementioned Los Angeles restaurant fracas. But he can’t bring any credibility to numerous other scenes, notably when Nick bursts from a helicopter to tag along with some local cops, lamely spouting insipid dialog of the “Come on, let’s get ’em!” type.

He also shares zero chemistry with Tang, which is a serious problem, since Nick and Lien become lovers because ... well, because the script says so. Their first passionate clinch is unintentionally hilarious, in part because it’s so badly timed and unconvincing.

Mann telegraphs the moment, and we truly can’t believe it’s about to happen. (No ... seriously? Uh-huh ... ’fraid so.) Hemsworth and Tang remain ill at ease together, during the entire film; it feels as if they had a spat on the first day of filming, and refused to click thereafter. Which, needless to say, further compromises an already weak plotline.

At stray moments, Mann displays flashes of the crisp, stylish élan that he possessed back in the day, with scalding crime dramas such as Thief and Heat. This illusion is amplified further when composers Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross and Leopold Ross deliver pulsing underscore themes reminiscent of the electronica rock group Tangerine Dream, which scored Mann’s early films.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh lends additional weight to these stronger scenes; his nighttime filming is particularly suspenseful.

But these moments are mere tease: In every case, Mann and Foehl immediately destroy any good will with more leaden acting, wooden dialog and nonsensical plotting.

Cyber terrorism is a very real and legitimately scary threat, and I’ve no doubt we’ll eventually get some gripping thrillers set in that realm. But Blackhat certainly won’t belong on that list.

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