The cinematic world of Michael Mann, the director behind “Heat,” “Collateral,” “The Insider” and “Miami Vice,” might look more or less like ours on the surface, but in fact it’s an alternate universe with unique rules and customs.
It’s a world in which the top three buttons of any men’s shirt are useless and designer sunglasses are always at hand. It’s a world of ultramodern architecture and eerie neon urban vistas, a world in which no human ever says “hello” or “goodbye” while on the telephone, and in which the most powerful form of communication between two individuals is the glower, the glance, the look that is at one mysterious and perfectly telling.
It’s a world that springs forth from a kind of modernist macho fantasia — part action movie, part menswear catalog — with regular gunfights and beautiful women and sleek boats and darkened synth scores to complement the mood.
If that’s a world where you want to spend time, then you’ll be intrigued by “Blackhat,” the latest cool-guy movie from the reigning king of cool-guy directors.
It’s not Mr. Mann’s sharpest movie (that would be “Heat”) nor his most mesmerizingly stylized (that honor goes to “Miami Vice”) nor his most conventionally entertaining thriller (“Collateral”). It lacks the historical drama of “Ali,” “Public Enemies” and “The Insider.”
But it bears all of Mr. Mann’s directorial signatures, as well as a contemporary techno-thriller story about dueling hackers that allows the director to continue exploring his fascinations with bank robbers and other bad men, and the strange bonds that form between them.
The alpha-hacker at the center of it all is Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a convict with the legendary ability to penetrate practically any computer security system. When we first encounter him, he’s in prison, listening to high-end headphones and reading Foucault. He wears his hair long, in a lionlike blonde mane, and his biceps look like chiseled marble. He gets into trouble with the prison guards. Then he does some push-ups, just because.
That’s how men are in Michael Mann’s movies. They’re not people. They’re symbols of a particular brand of masculine cool, brilliant but mostly wordless, aggressive but rarely brash. They never accept the deal that life gives them. They make their own deals.
So it’s no surprise when, a few moments later, Hathaway refuses to accept the deal presented to him. After a rogue hacker — a “blackhat” like him — causes a meltdown at a Chinese nuclear facility, a joint team of Chinese and American investigators want his help. They offer him a brief furlough; he wants a full pardon if he succeeds.
Hathaway gets the deal he wants and ends up on a global hunt for the digital triggerman behind the nuclear plant breach. He hacks things. He falls in love with Lien Chen (Wei Tang), one of the Chinese agents. He rubs elbows with his American supervisor, Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). He shares silent moments of respect with his Chinese counterpart (Chen Dawai).
The story is thin, and the hacking is simplified to the point of absurdity. (At one point, Hathaway hacks a super-secret National Security Agency tool using a basic email phishing scheme.) The shootouts are punishingly loud — Mr. Mann sometimes appears to be the only director in Hollywood who has ever heard an actual gun fired — but lack the crackle of his best action set pieces. The villain’s motivations are weak.
“Blackhat” is not one of Michael Mann’s better films. It’s not a particularly good movie. But it is, unquestionably, a Michael Mann movie, one that takes places in a fully realized version of Michael Mann’s unique world, and for that alone it’s worth considering. The movie’s a mess, but the vision behind it remains as potent and seductive as ever.
CREDITS: Directed by Michael Mann, screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl
RATING: R for sexuality, violence, language
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS