Swerve and Protect: Wanting More From ‘Blackhat,’ ‘Taken 3,’ and ‘The Wedding Ringer’

Universal Pictures

Michael Mann’s Blackhat is a paranoia thriller that treats computer code the way most movies treat serial killers. In the opening minutes, the camera surfs along cables, weaves between chips, pinballs amid circuitry. It’s interested in everything: screens of numbers, blips, pulses, and lasers. Mann is trying to personify information, to give it a point of view the way The Silence of the Lambs plunked you down in the basement lair of Buffalo Bill. The movie isn’t as visually or psychologically arresting, but it has a decent ludicrousness and Mann’s one-of-a-kind talent for using digital photography and naturalistic light to complicate and invigorate anonymous spaces.

Lots of non–science fiction thrillers are ultimately about the fear of advancing technology. They’re not sci-fi because science has already run amok. There are hackers. There is government and corporate spying. And it doesn’t take much for computer networks and surveillance systems (or their anonymous human exponents) to come chasing after you. That was the sickening allure of everything from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (with Gene Hackman as a genius eavesdropper) and John Badham’s WarGames to Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State and Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour: It might already be too late.

For about 10 minutes, Blackhat generates intrigue, in part, by showing us the technology doing its psychotic thing. All that fiber-optic coursing culminates in an explosion at a Chinese nuclear reactor. Then we see the blips and cables and pulses reach the claw of a chip and soy futures soar through the roof. Soon we’re hopscotching between a pair of FBI agents, Barrett and Pollack (played by Viola Davis and John Ortiz, respectively); and Chen (Wang Leehom), an MIT-educated Chinese cyber-criminologist, and his old classmate Nick (Chris Hemsworth), who, for reasons known only to a Hollywood movie, needs to be sprung from prison to help solve this case. “So good to see you, bro,” says Chen during a long embrace with Nick that Agent Barrett and Chen’s hacker sister (Tang Wei) are parked outside the prison to witness.

Nick had been in the middle of serving a 15-year sentence for stealing millions from four big banks. But someone’s using a sloppy version of code he wrote to commit seemingly unrelated acts of terrorism and sabotage. As a deal to help solve the case, he wants his sentence commuted. The script is credited to Morgan Davis Foehl, and at this point he had me. Where’s this going? For one thing, into the land of compujargon. There’s talk of edge routers and optical overlay networks. Among the Chinese, there’s bad dubbing and, elsewhere, dull exploratory excursions.

And while Barrett and Chen work angles on their side of the film, Nick and the sister wind up working each other’s angles. (To be fair, he’d been in prison for a minute.) But this, of course, turns a film about cybercrime into a film at least partially about fucking hackers. What you realize as they’re gazing at each other and as you watch their lovemaking is that these two are terrible together. Tang is lost in her many English-speaking scenes, presumably having been hired for the sex she had in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. There’s often little more for her to do than stare at the top of Hemsworth’s head as he hacks hunkily away in a dingy flat. But you start to doubt a movie that gives this much screen time to an actress who’s that in over her head when, in Davis, there’s a star on the other side of the movie exuding cool control. And what if she and Hemsworth had switched parts?

Because while the movies — and People magazine — believe in Hemsworth’s sexiness, falling for it is a kind of false worship. He walks around with shirts open to the middle of his chest, as though he were James Caan in 1973. But Caan had the cockiness (OK, gall) to open his to his navel. Hemsworth is missing that kind of gumption. He’s got an empty smolder, like a grill after you’ve dumped out the coals. But it turns out that when he isn’t forced to be concerned with sex, when the movie lets him charge ahead with the narrative, he becomes sexy in a young Jan-Michael Vincent sort of way. When Hemsworth finally puts all the plot pieces together (thank you, screenplay!), he’s standing well above sea level, speaking to no one in whatever accent he’s decided to give himself: “That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it, you son of a bitch?”

By this point, the movie has turned into something ripe and pulpy. Nick breaks into the NSA’s system. And later, when he does more pivotal hacking, you’ll never guess the color of his baseball cap. You come to appreciate the film’s fondness for Nick’s criminality even as it baffles (if the hat fits, I guess). By that point, Mann has already staged one shootout at a dockyard among shipping containers and another on an empty street at night (the veteran Holt McCallany plays the U.S. Marshal on the FBI’s team; he’s got the sort of unfussy masculinity Mann’s movies thrive on). These sequences aren’t Heat-caliber. But Mann puts his foot in them, anyway, lingering with love over the face of one dead character and letting the sound guys leave you feeling as though you’ve been riddled with bullets, too.

The whole thing culminates in an excitingly done, increasingly despicable nighttime showdown at a Jakarta street festival whose vastness seems meant to hide its participants from each other. We never see the faces of the marchers, but when a melee inevitably erupts and the knives and guns come out, the marchers are shoved in and out of the way. They’re made disposable for our entertainment. The movie has long given up on giving technology a point of view and turns rather suddenly into another asinine occasion to bulldoze a culture that has no point of view in Hollywood.

Taken 3Sam Urdank/Europacorp

I guess there’s no point in asking who wants another Taken sequel. By a wide margin, the latest and allegedly last installment — Taken 3 — is no. 1 at the box office. Volume 2, set largely in Istanbul, made a wishful rooftop leap into the Bourne movies but crashed through a window into a bad 24 plot. Having Liam Neeson’s CIA operative hell-bent on revenge, Bryan Mills, team up with a blonde nincompoop daughter named Kim (Maggie Grace) only enhanced the TV comparison. But, oh, the magical shenanigans of Taken 2! It warranted a space in the dumb action hall of fame.

(Here’s an incomplete transcript of a jailed Mills stealing a cell-phone call to Kim: “Take a shoelace from one of my shoes in the closet … Draw another circle with the market in the center … I want you to go to the parking lot with the grenade … I want you to pull the pin on the grenade … Now I want you to draw a circle on the map … I want you to take one of the guns and two of the grenades and go up to the roof … Set off another grenade … Drop the gun down the vent, Kim, and run … ”)

Well, Kim runs into part three, a movie that thinks the way to earn our knuckle-biting is to be as dull as hell for 35 minutes, then send a giant shipping container hurtling along the interstate. But you yawn through that, too. It’s all brought to you by the same outfit that made the first two: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen on script, with Olivier Megaton directing. This being a Besson production, it attains some lunacy, but hardly anything comparable to Taken 2, which had lost the antsy defensiveness of the ludicrous first movie, a story of a divorced dad trying to reassert his fatherly primacy with karate chops, swinging kicks, and action doubles.

After all that, it’s honestly surprising there’s anything left to take. Alas, however, he arrives from a jog to his Los Angeles apartment one morning only to find the dead body of his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen). But she just texted him a bagel order! Of course, the cops think Bryan did it. Of course, Bryan runs. Of course, the detective on the case is Forest Whitaker, who fiddles with such props as rubber bands and discarded chess pieces (it’s a knight, and it takes nothing). Whenever Bryan gets close to Kim, who’s distraught over her mother, worried for her father, and expecting, Whitaker gets a feeling and goes nuts and orders the officers he’s got surveilling Kim to get after her.

At this point, you could stay home and fire up The Fugitive. The plot hides amid a bonanza of convenience-store trips, diner scenes, and lots of shots of bagels. It does so while climbing a ladder of nonsense that leads to the sort of ugly-looking Russian goon who, in anticipation of a business deal, actually makes time for gross hot-tub nuzzling with two ladies. Never fear — with these movies, the ladder always has another rung. But it’s also the kind of film that telegraphs what that rung is long before any sort of climax gets going. All the exceptional stunt work of the first movie and action orchestration of the second are an uninspired mess of visual incoherence. When Bryan and his car are run over the side of a cliff, you can set your watch for the flashback that explains his escape.

Neeson owns these movies and this new bad-ass phase of his career. Other middle-aged stars have followed suit with suave turns in kill-everybody action thrillers — Kevin Costner, Denzel Washington, and soon, Sean Penn. Neeson gives his incarnation heartache and loneliness. He performs. His intolerance for the execrable extends from the characters to the actors playing them. Dougray Scott plays Lenore’s husband, Stuart, and before getting to the Russians, Bryan leaves himself no choice but to waterboard Stuart. As bad as Scott is (he’s not even winking!), this is excessive, and, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent torture report confirmed, not terribly effective. (Again, so many rungs.)

Neeson looks good. He just doesn’t look fast. Bryan’s escape from the LAPD, by foot and by fence-scaling, constitutes satire. This is one of the most hectically edited movies I’ve ever seen (I don’t think there’s an action shot that exceeds three seconds). But the cutting can’t disguise Neeson’s slowness. American law enforcement has been under a lot of stress and scrutiny lately. But failing to catch a big-ass 62-year-old Irish dude running through alleyways and living rooms will only add insult to injury.

 Wedding-RingerMatt Kennedy/Screen Gems

A reliable authority swears to me that an algorithm didn’t write the new Kevin Hart movie; humans did. But The Wedding Ringer feels spat out for people who love Katherine Heigl movies but wish that Eddie Murphy were in her role instead. Instead of mid-1980s Murphy, though, they get Hart, who tries to do for this movie what Will Smith did for a similar matchmaking scenario in Hitch: make it fizzy.

Like HitchThe Wedding Ringer is all but stolen by the corpulent costar who needs a smooth black male to save him from haplessness (it’s Josh Gad now; then, it was Kevin James). There are slabs of Wedding Crashers, stabs at the painfully funny physicality of the Farrelly brothers, something like the finale of The Graduate, and the sort of approach to bromance that errs relentlessly — though neither insultingly nor all that cluelessly — on the side of gay.

Hart’s Jimmy Callahan runs a business specializing in providing best-man services to friendless grooms. Gad’s character, Doug, calls on him 10 days before his wedding to a woman (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) who he feels is too hot for him. He has fewer friends than he has let on to her. But for $50,000 (plus expenses), Jimmy pulls together a team of groomsmen and throws him a bachelor party. The short notice means the groomsmen are largely idiots and weirdos. One is a fat loser (Jorge Garcia). The Asian American one has a third testicle. Another’s a white, sleazed-up ex-con (Colin Kane) who preys on women and has raped men. Doug is appalled, but maybe these misfits (and criminals) are the bros he’s always wanted.

The number of soundtracked montages Doug and Jimmy share makes the average Heigl movie seem like Birdman. In the meantime, they find themselves drawn to one other, and each time they have a moment, Jimmy has to redraw a professional line the way Julia Roberts kept telling Richard Gere she doesn’t kiss johns on the mouth.

Jeremy Garelick directed The Wedding Ringer from a script credited to him and to Jay Lavender, and they seem scared of how much smarter this movie could’ve been. The filmmakers unleash noisy party scenes, sequences that appear to have been edited with a Vitamix, and a basset hound that comes down with lockjaw while licking Gad’s penis. That last bit — along with a couple of other nominally funny asides — are intended to bring down the house. The wedding planner is an over-the-top gay queen (Ignacio Serricchio). At some point, Doug’s grandmother (Cloris Leachman) catches fire at a dinner table and nearly burns down the house. And Doug’s coarse, macho future father-in-law (Ken Howard) challenges Doug’s masculinity by assembling a football team that includes Ed “Too Tall” Jones and a mad-dog Joe Namath.

This is drive-thru comedy. The sugar, grease, and salt will make it a hit. But there’s a far more interesting, sophisticated work of cynical farce between the film’s two sesame-seeded buns. Olivia Thirlby plays the potential sister-in-law, and the movie almost lets her do more than smell a rat in Jimmy. The same is true of Cuoco-Sweeting, whose sense of comedic sharpness the film just gives up on. More than once this sham world that Jimmy inhabits keeps revealing funny new layers of fraud. The gay wedding planner pivots from one cliché to the invention of another because, he surmises, the clientele for his line of work demands it. The movie understands the lucrative value of stereotypes, so that’s all it peddles. It’s all the producer Will Packer peddles, too, usually with Hart.

The only moments that don’t feel like a sham are the ones in which Hart and Gad are holding each other on the dance floor, reclined in beach chairs reminiscing gently as water from a swimming pool shimmers over them, or tongue-tied at the mutual intensity of their connection. I, at least, felt something. Hart’s best with a skeptical sparring partner — like Alan Arkin or Regina Hall — rather than on his own or with someone he can run all over. His comedy needs a speed limit and often a Kleenex. In song or in motion, Gad could be a star. He and Hart are persuasively vulnerable together.

This movie isn’t uncomfortable with that, but it interrupts the awwws — or the ewwws, if you’re inclined to be that way — with a lot of crassness. Maybe the hope is that you don’t notice that the “if you liked blank, then you’ll like blank” algorithm is sputtering as it attains a version of derivative, untapped humanity: If you liked Pretty Woman, you’ll love when it pretends to be Bridesmaids.

Filed Under: Movies, Blackhat, taken 3, the wedding ringer, Kevin Hart, Michael Mann, Viola Davis, Chris Hemsworth, Wang Leehom, Tang Wei, Liam Neeson, Forrest Whitaker, luc besson, josh gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting