American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Michael Mann is an action filmmaker even when his characters are standing still. His movies contemplate themselves: they are simultaneously about what's happening and what it means. They're sensitive to the intellectual and emotional undercurrents swirling around the characters, whether they're running, driving, punching and shooting, or just brooding in close-up while electronic music shimmers and drones.
All of which makes him an oddly ideal director for "Blackhat," a solemn, grandiose, often ludicrous thriller in which "Thor" star Chris Hemsworth plays a buff computer hacker helping a joint team of FBI and Chinese intelligence agents chase cyberterrorists through Chicago, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Jakarta. Slick and sometimes goofy as it is, "Blackhat" is an odd, fascinating movie: a high-tech action thriller about the human condition. I can think of no better current illustration of the notion that, to quote this site's founder, it's not what a movie is about, it's how it's about it.
"Blackhat" is far from a perfect movie, mind you. Its rock-solid confidence in technical details isn't matched by similarly exacting attention to plot mechanics. Key roles are miscast or underwritten. Hemsworth's character, Nicholas Hathaway—a keyboard wizard furloughed from prison to help catch cyberterrorists who are stealing fortunes and wrecking nuclear plants—is implausibility Exhibit "A." "Blackhat" contrives a biography to justify this genius autodidact who reads Michel Foucault after lights-out, delivers mirrored epigrams in a Noo Yawk accent ("I did the time; time isn't doing me"), has Thor's chest and abs (push-ups, baby!), and can fight and shoot like John Wick and navigate irradiated nuclear plants in a hazmat suit. Despite Hemsworth's magnetism, Hathaway remains more a checklist of awesome than a credible person. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of his partners in justice, a racially and internationally diverse bunch. Their ranks include the sensitive/fearsome brother-sister duo of Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and Lien Chen (Wei Tang) and FBI agents Henry Pollack (John Ortiz), Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany) and Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). More so than in most Mann pictures—and this is saying a lot—these characters are more often lit and posed than explored.
Sometimes this feels like the right approach. The film spares us the usual "partners hate each other at
first, then learn to work together" cliche by establishing that Hathaway
and Chen were college roommates who love and respect each other; their embrace after reconnecting is shorthand that lets us instantly accept their Crockett-and-Tubbs-styled two-brained hive mind. The semi-obligatory love story between Hathaway and Lien is a Wong-Kar Wai oasis amid the snooping and chasing, all sexy smiles and furtive embraces. Leehom Wang's elegance is intoxicating: he glides across the screen like a dancer, necktie rippling.