Anyone who loves Michael Mann movies, or even just the idea of Michael Mann movies, accepts that film style is a language and something more, a way of thinking, feeling, and looking that goes beyond basic plotting, dialogue, or character motivation. I can tell you pretty much everything that happens in Mann’s new cyberthriller, Blackhat, in just one sentence. But I could easily spend 40 sentences — probably even 100 or more — telling you how it happens, describing the splash of green and red traffic lights reflected in a windshield, the purply-brown needle bruise on the tattooed skin of a heroin overdose victim, the way the camera seeks out the faintly shadowed ballerina neck curve of Chinese actress Tang Wei. Mann takes the bland elements of the generic mainstream thriller — the cop being shot, the car exploding, the hot girl taking notice of the taciturn, musclebound hero — and gooses them into visual overdrive. In Blackhat, seeing isn’t believing; it’s merely the process that leads to believing.
There’s visual thinking everywhere you look in Blackhat, which is great until you realize that it’s bled into a kind of over-thinking — the movie is too much of a good thing, an exercise that flattens any potential exhilaration or excitement into the sensation of grading a term paper. It’s exhilarating, at first, to move from one aesthetic flourish to another like an excited bee. But before long, all those stylistic garnishes start to pile up; you know they mean something, but “knowing” isn’t the same as “feeling,” and processing them begins to feel like a chore. Ace criminal hacker Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is sprung from jail to help old pal and MIT classmate Chen (Wang Leehom) track down the “blackhat,” or malicious hacker, who has brought on a near-meltdown at a nuclear-power facility, obviously a prelude to an even bigger cataclysm. FBI agent Carol Barrett (a businesslike Viola Davis) dislikes and distrusts Hathaway from the start, glowering at him librarian-style over her glasses, and you can see why: With his prison-sculpted physique and swoop of slick blond hair, he’s a sun-kissed galoot, a grouchy (if brilliant) slab of faux-Nordic beauty with no allegiance to anyone but himself.
She turns out to be wrong, of course, though it takes awhile for Hathaway to really come into focus as a character. The action in Blackhat skims from Chicago and Los Angeles to Hong Kong and Jakarta, with a side trip to rural Malaysia. Along the way, Hathaway falls in love (and into bed) with Chen’s sister, Lien, played by Tang, a network engineer whom Chen has enlisted for the cause: Hathaway and Lien find their way to each other almost wordlessly, even though Lien speaks excellent, if strangely monotone, English. Their romance evolves quietly but steadily, which makes you believe in it more — Mann is good at that sort of thing. They exchange knowing glances that render words unnecessary; they sleep curled into each other, as if creating a mutual safety net in an unsafe world; they collaborate on a dangerous mission that begins with Lien, dressed up in a sleek businessy sheath dress, intentionally spilling coffee on a possibly important document and then letting it flap from the window of the hired car she’s riding in. Where is she going? Why did she pour coffee on the paper? Why is it important for the paper to dry quickly? The answers are somewhat anticlimactic, but that doesn’t matter much. One good thing about Mann, even in a film that doesn’t quite work: He enjoys teasing the questions out of you instead of just handing you the answers.
In fact, Blackhat is so engaging in lots of little ways that it’s a shame the movie doesn’t add up to more. Tang and especially Wang — both of whom appeared in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution — may not have as much to do as they should, but Mann presents them as possible movie stars of the future, sexy and appealing actors worthy of our attention. (How many Asian men, especially, get to be sexy in American movies? Chow Yun-fat was one of the most sensual actors of the Nineties Hong Kong movie boom, but Hollywood never figured out what to do with him.)
Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, in his first collaboration with Mann, makes a suitable partner in crime: He’s good at executing Mann’s seemingly simple but much-fussed-over visual ideas — the neon décor of a Hong Kong noodle restaurant glows pink and green just so, because you know Mann wouldn’t have it any other way. And the movie opens with an imaginative reenactment of computer code snaking through a network, presented as a stream of light wending its way along the twists and turns of various circuitry, almost as if molten lava had been poured into the crevices of an ant colony. It’s a clever bit of visual wizardry that teases in just the right way, making you wonder just where you’re headed for the next two hours or so.
And yet this elaborate, purposeful movie never quite connects. Mann has made some extraordinary pictures, the Big Tobacco exposé drama The Insider among the best of them. But that was in 1999: Since then, he’s had a string of films — including Collateral and Public Enemies — that purport to cut deep but don’t amount to much more than bloodless stylistic exercises. Blackhat only makes that list longer. It’s acceptably entertaining while you’re watching it. But how depressing that Michael Mann should settle for being acceptably anything.