Hong Kong is often considered one of the world’s most technologically advanced cities (partly due to its surveillance capabilities), so a hacker thriller set there starring Aaron Kwok (郭富城) seemed promising. I shouldn’t have been so naïve as to think that a mere setting could work any alchemy.

Kwok plays Cheuk Ka-chun, the brightest star at a cybersecurity firm specializing in banks. Far be it from me to tell someone how to run a bank (I couldn’t top Bertolt Brecht’s advice if I tried), but if my security firm’s clients suffered total system failures at a rate of two per year, I’d switch to a different firm.

It’s not just because it’s a lousy firm, either. Unbeknownst to Cheuk — who, again, is the brightest of the lot — both his boss, Frankie (Kenny Wong 黃德斌), and his boss, Chan Ming-chi (Gordon Lam 林家棟), are staging these attacks as a cover for money laundering. Seeing these two walk out of their separate offices after hacking away people’s money to evaluate Cheuk’s response to the attack they themselves started (with some outside help played by Tony Wu 胡子彤) really sells their dastardliness.

In quick order, Frankie’s greed gets him killed via remote carjacking, and Chan needs a new bagman, so he frames Cheuk for money laundering in order to get him to do it for real. That car crash is the only big stunt in the film; the other stunts are mainly Cheuk fighting off an armed gang of hitpeople (including Wiyona Yeung 楊梓菁, not for gender equality reasons but precisely the opposite: There’s a toddler to be kidnapped) while wearing only one of his backpack’s straps (all stunts coordinated adeptly by Johnny Tang 鄧瑞華).

The police, led by cybercrime chief Inspector Suen Ban (Simon Yam 任達華), quickly catch Chuek, and he’s forced to gather evidence on Chan to demonstrate his innocence. Cheuk’s grade school daughter Bowie and Chan’s unnamed younger brother (Zeno Koo 顧定軒) serve as emotional pawns, repugnantly so, as both characters are disabled and stripped of any agency whatsoever. Faring slightly better is Cheuk’s wife (Megan Lai 賴雅妍), who gets a great heartrending “they took our daughter” wail on par with Angelina Jolie’s in Maleficent (2014) and wins the fight against Yeung’s character in the women’s division of the action film fight bracket (one matchup only).

Look, you probably care about these characters and the plot about as much as cowriters Philip Lui (呂冠南), Howard Yip (葉銘浩), and Shum Kwan-sin (岑君茜) do (i.e., not much). You’re here for the cyber part of Danny Wong (黃慶勳)’s Cyber Heist (斷網)! Alas, I wish I had better news. The opening CGI rendering of the financial cyberstructure at least looks kind of cool, but when humans join the viruses, the cyberspace they enter is a misty Nam Sang Wai forest spruced (sorry) up with visual effects that make Tron (1982) look like Tron: Legacy (2010). These are the only sequences that are deliberately underlit by cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung (鄭兆強); it doesn’t really matter, as the clear plastic masks the actors wear as their characters’ cyberspace avatars make everyone unrecognizable anyway. In cyberspace, viruses are floating energy balls, and firewalls are forcefields or CGI, uh, walls. God save the Wachowskis should they ever stumble across this film.

If there’s one saving grace to this near-future thriller with a stone-age mindset, it’s its use of the internet of things, in which everything is connected to everything else, for better and worse. Frankie’s car gets remotely hijacked. Bowie is located when Cheuk remotely turns on the GPS in her smartwatch. And the tabletop robot that reminds Bowie to take her meds (the same meds Chan’s brother takes; must be some kind of panacea) supplies the artificial intelligence that helps Cheuk create the virus to end all viruses — when he explains how he did it, his use of the term “machine learning” scrapes by on a technicality.

Given how many Chinese provinces joined the production, if this is the best they can do, Hollywood has nothing to fear. And judging from the number of streaming platforms listed in the end credits, China won’t be winning the streaming wars anytime soon, either. Let’s just hope that its real cybercrime and cyberwarfare capabilities don’t do much better.

Cyber Heist is in theaters.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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