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This photo provided by Universal Pictures shows Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway in Legendary’s "Blackhat," from director/producer Michael Mann.

Frank Connor/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

1.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Blackhat
Written by
Morgan Davis Foehl
Directed by
Michael Mann
Starring
Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei and Leehom Wang
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

Michael Mann's interminable techno-dud Blackhat opens with a CGI plunge through steep canyons of computer circuitry that culminates with an act of cyberterrorism and the recruitment from solitary confinement of a pectorally enhanced superhacker (Chris Hemsworth) to track the perp.

Uh-oh. Any movie that evokes Tron, WarGames and a vintage Sylvester Stallone movie in its first five minutes isn't boding well for urgency.

Even if it hadn't already been headline-trumped by the Sony hacking scandal or so handily out-suspensed by the extraordinary Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, Mann's new movie would still seem about as thrilling and current as a first-generation Atari game system, an exercise in sleek redundancy where words like "malware" and are supposed to generate shivers of excruciating anticipation.

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Written by Morgan Davis Foehl, Blackhat's script may unfold over several countries – the United States, China, etc. – and speak in several languages, but the idiom it favours most is unspeakably impenetrable techno-gab, cramming all of its characters' mouths with impossible chunks of expositional gristle. It's like listening to a room full of hypnotized IT geeks speaking in tongues.

Not that it doesn't occasionally stoop to more prosaic utterances, such as when Hemsworth's Hathaway – who otherwise moves through the movie like a statue on a dolly – is compelled, by the comely Chinese cybercop (Tang Wei) with whom he strikes an erotic spark as intense as a fabric softener sheet, to reveal his code: "I do the time. The time isn't doing me."

Invoking vintage Mann – Thief, Heat, The Insider – only when it stops for a good, old-fashioned shootout in a claustrophobic industrial setting or on a busy urban street, Blackhat is otherwise a rather desperate retread of the director's signature stylistic tics: harsh light bouncing off metallic surfaces (or, close enough, Hemsworth's chest), twinkling cityscapes viewed from swank balconies, action sequences cut to disorienting splinters, cameras swooping and lunging like scavenging seagulls and moody exchanges of silent glances between externally pretty but internally conflicted souls.

But if the overall ambiance, not to mention the focus on an uncompromising professional rebel with a code, is unmistakably Michael Mann's, the most vexing problem with Blackhat is that it's all ambiance. The style here seems less like an organic expression of the film's deeper themes and concerns than a rather desperate attempt to distract from the utter absence of those depths. Like the fetchingly photogenic, Nordically imposing Hemsworth, who is about as inconspicuous when he goes underground in places like Jakarta as King Kong was when he took Manhattan, the movie is all shell and no fish.

Going all the way back to TV's era-defining Miami Vice, Mann has struggled to shrug off an undeserved rap as a hollow but polished stylist, a rap he impressively dodged as his movies eventually synched up their cool, hard and shiny exteriors with underlying currents of psychological and emotional resonance. At his best, style became substance, an articulation of the inner lives of inarticulate individualists. And they were capable of knocking you out with their high-wire balance of visceral appeal and romantic existential macho: think of the hyper-sexualized opening safecracking of Thief, the daylight bank heist of Heat or even the night siege of the fort in Last of the Mohicans.

In those movies, the slickness of surfaces gave way to something far messier, vulnerable and human beneath: a beating heart perhaps, or a soul armoured against a battering world. Blackhat reveals the extent of its internal resources with that opening fighter-pilot dive into the guts of a computer: an infinite maze of pure circuitry.

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