‘Blackhat’ panders to China and punctures Michael Mann’s movie-making reputation

As focused as the blurred, often random moments of unsteady steadicam shots and as coherent as co-star Wei Tang’s indecipherable Chinese accent, Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” is a classic January fire sale thriller.

Mann’s worst film since he transitioned into the pantheon of “major directors,” the best reason Universal had for rolling it out at all must have been some misguided attempt to pander its way into Chinese favor. Is there a theme park deal we haven’t heard about that was at stake here?

A hacking thriller starring Chris “Thor” Hemsworth, it would seem a can’t-miss, just from its timing. The villains might not be North Koreans, but that’s not obvious as we see a Chinese nuclear power plant cyber-hijacked into a near meltdown, and the U.S. commodities market manipulated to a near crash.

Somebody’s behind both incidents. The Chinese investigator, Capt. Chen (Leehom Wang) insists that the U.S. Justice Department get his former M.I.T. roommate, Nicholas Hathway (Hemsworth), out of prison to help crack the case.

Viola Davis, the movies’ Queen of No-Nonsense, is the F.B.I. agent in charge of the ankle-braceleted Hathaway, someone trying to give the Chinese just enough cooperation to crack the case.

Chen has a willowy, computer-savvy sister (Wei Tang) and she falls hard for the chiseled convict hacker with a lock of hair always draped over one eye. Even that fails to generate friction in Mann’s movie, a film where the villains are unseen for the first hour, and seem designed by a political correctness committee when they do arrive.

Mann makes tension-killing mistakes dating back to his “Miami Vice” days – wasting long sections of screen time on people traveling by car, boat, helicopter or private plane, losing himself in dialogue as banal as “Cash money doesn’t have a trail,” lines he cares so little about he lets his actors swallow the last words, adding to the sense of missing information.

It’s not that “Blackhat” is hard to follow. The extreme close-ups of computer info traveling down circuits, brooding shots of Hemsworth thinking, sometimes with his shirt off, the shootouts where agents with pistols outshoot bad guys with automatic weapons, tell us enough. And if you’ve ever wondered what a keyboard looks like, inside, looking up at the keys as they’re struck, this is the movie for you.

Maybe that theme park deal will materialize, and Mann taking one and making one for the team will pay off. Otherwise, “Blackhat” will serve no purpose other than deflating the “Heat” director’s reputation and the star’s chances of ever starring in anything that doesn’t involve a helmet with horns on it.

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