Since the beginning of his career, Michael Mann has been, first and foremost, a stylist. His earliest work (Thief, Manhunter, producing TV's Miami Vice) had such a startlingly unique aesthetic -- a slow-burn pace that paired moody music with lurid colors -- that young filmmakers are still aping it 30 years later (with Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive being one of the most prominent examples). Mann's style evolved in the 21st century as smaller digital cameras allowed him to get even closer to his characters and encouraged him to shoot from unexpected places. His cyber-terrorism thriller Blackhat continues this new visual approach.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Nicholas Hathaway, a world-class hacker who, as the movie opens, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for stealing millions from banks. His old college friend Dawai (Wang Lee Hom), a member of the Chinese military and a tech expert, convinces the U.S. government to let Nicholas out of prison so he can help a small squad of American and Chinese security officials; they need his skills to track down a hacker who caused a lethal accident at a nuclear reactor and made millions artificially manipulating the price of soy futures. If they apprehend their target, Nicholas gets his sentence commuted. Working with him and Dawai are Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), an American who must deal with her boss's distrust of both the Chinese and their ex-con collaborator, and Dawai's sister Lien (Wei Tang), a talented hacker in her own right who quickly falls in love with Nicholas.
Mann wastes no time showing off his latest filmmaking tools. His opening shot tracks inside a computer, flying around the inside of a motherboard and through wires representing the Internet itself, so that we can see the virus planted by the bad guy. There's more novelty to come during the fight scenes, which look like they were recorded with the latest GoPro technology; you've never been this close to a guy getting his face smashed in with a table. Throw in a sickeningly fast and shaky foot chase, and there's enough here for Mann's devoted fans to say that the director is still on the cutting edge.
However, for those who found his last two movies -- Miami Vice and Public Enemies -- overly long and crushingly dull, there's nothing here that will change their minds. It's another exercise in tough-guy posturing that lacks the philosophical depth of his best work: Manhunter, Heat, and The Insider. At best, we marvel at what Mann can do while never being involved in what's happening. The exceptions are a brilliantly directed shoot-out that kicks off the movie's final act, and an utterly unique sequence in which Nicholas must don a hazmat suit and enter the irradiated nuclear plant to retrieve some computer hardware.
Hemsworth makes Nicholas a traditional Mann hero: He's taciturn, emotionally detached, and most importantly, lives by a code. He also gets a handful of snappy, action-hero lines to deliver, courtesy of screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl. Meanwhile, Viola Davis makes sure we know her character is the toughest in the movie, delivering her dialogue with a cool but impassioned authority that instantly makes her the most likable person onscreen.
The 71-year-old Mann used to be able to imbue genre films with real depth thanks to his painterly frames and intellectual obsessions, but he hasn't been in top form for more than a decade. Blackhat might be his best work since Collateral, but that still doesn't mean it's compelling or interesting.