The recent computer attacks on Sony Pictures and the U.S. Central Command might make Michael Mann's cyber-thriller "Blackhat" seem timely, even prescient. Its premise: What if a master hacker set his sights on something bigger than a film studio or a military Twitter account? Something like, say, a nuclear power plant?
Don't expect "Blackhat" to consider the larger social or political implications of that scenario. It's a thriller with nothing more on its mind than staging a few action sequences and sex scenes in exotic locations around the globe. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's exactly what Mann ("Thief," "Manhunter," "Heat") does better than most. With "Blackhat," Mann plays to all his cinematic strengths -- moody lighting, bruising violence -- but in the service of a trite story with anemic characters.
Mann has always been a man's man, fond of macho actors like James Caan and Robert De Niro. He's found another in Chris Hemsworth, of the "Thor" films, who plays Nick Hathaway, a brilliant hacker stewing in prison. Hemsworth, a bright spot in this otherwise dim movie, plays Hathaway with such thuggish rage that you forget he's supposed to have attended MIT. (You might call him an unredeemed version of Matt Damon's Will Hunting). Hathaway's old classmate, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), now a high-ranking Chinese official, manages to spring Hathaway and enlist his help in capturing an evil hacker -- a so-called blackhat.
From there, the script (by Morgan Davis Foehl) delves even deeper into clichés. Chen's sister, Lien (Tang Wei), falls instantly for Hathaway, causing some tension. Clues to the blackhat lead from Los Angeles to Malaysia to Indonesia. Viola Davis plays a likable hard-nose from the FBI; John Ortiz is her bureaucratic boss.
Every now and then, "Blackhat" delivers. The action has a jolting, almost breathtaking physicality; Mann still knows how to bring the pain. But the dialogue is flat and the characters even flatter. The story hinges on a nefarious plot straight out of a James Bond movie, but the ending feels small-scale and anticlimactic. Despite its fortuitous timing with current headlines, "Blackhat" is more trivial than topical.