Film Review – Blackhat
From top to bottom, Blackhat is a Michael Mann movie. All the familiar traits are there: tough guys, conversations over tabletops, dynamic cityscapes, and flashes of violence. It is a “Mann film,” but it’s unlike anything he’s done. Here is a filmmaker so focused on his craft that he’s transcended his own style. If his intent was to comment on modern day cybercrime, he missed the mark. But there’s something else going on here. Digging through the muddle of a story reveals something captivating. For some reason, the problems the film has (and there are many) added to its entertainment value. It’s silly and stupid and hilarious, but never boring. At the most basic level, Michael Mann has made his version of The Fast and the Furious.
Is this a case of a director losing his touch? Detractors would argue the plot holes, the unconvincing characters, and the random flights of fancy, and they would have a point. Can the man who made Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Collateral (2004), and Public Enemies (2009) make a terrible movie? Mann has made a career at being detail-oriented, yet Blackhat feels the most sprawling of his recent work. But that’s what fascinated me. Mann pushes the envelope, injecting every familiar trope not only associated with him, but with the action genre as a whole. How seriously can we take a story where a truck is dropped through the roof of a building simply to cause a distraction?
Mann opens with a thrilling prologue, as his camera dives into the insides of a computer. Using no dialogue, we weave our way through wiring and computer chips, with flashing lights as the only indicator of what’s going on. I’m in no way knowledgeable at computer programming or hacking, but I understood how the growing lights hinted at some mounting danger. We learn this computer controls a Chinese nuclear reactor, and the mysterious malware triggers an explosion. Terrorism is suspected, but with no apparent religious or political motivations, investigators are left at a loss.
Agents Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and his sister Lien Chen (Wei Tang) are assigned the case, and realize that part of the code used in the attack was written by an American convict and expert hacker, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). With the help of American agents Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and Henry Pollack (John Ortiz), Hathaway is furloughed out of prison to help track down the ghost hacker (or “Blackhat”) and bring them to justice. So begins an adventure that takes our heroes from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong and Jakarta, as they piece their way toward the faceless criminals.
Computer hacking is rarely exciting to see on screen, as it’s mostly people fake-typing away with concerned looks on their faces. I believe Mann sensed this, because no matter how often Hathaway and his team are shown in front of their screens, this is – at heart – a film of gunplay. Mann once again shows his skills at gritty and realistic action, with a handful of scenes displaying how visceral his set pieces can be. His use of digital photography (in coordination with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh) is slick and stylized. One scene in Jakarta, set during a fire-lit festival with countless people around, stood out as a highlight. The picture is still hampered by digital graininess, but Mann has developed its use since he converted to the format.
The writing is where audiences will be divided. Working with screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, Mann builds the plot with so many cliches that I wonder if he was doing it on purpose. Hathaway is the classic movie hero: brilliant with technology, accurate with weaponry, filled with tough guy lingo (“I’m doing time, time isn’t doing me”), and never has a hair on his beautiful head out of place. He spends time in prison working out, making sure people know that by unbuttoning his shirts halfway down his chest. Little of his background is given – he’s used more as a vessel traveling through the procedural at hand. The obligatory romance Hathaway has with Lien Chen is about as hot as Antarctica, relegated to the primordial “I’m good looking, you’re good looking, let’s do this.”
Examples like this go on and on, building on the absurdity. The Blackhat – once exposed – relays a plan so outlandish they could be mistaken for a Bond villain. At a certain point, I had to sit back and let it all wash over me. Whether it was his goal or not, Mann has created a film so over the top that it’s almost impossible to take sincerely. I enjoyed watching it, but not in the way I thought I would with this filmmaker. It would be better seen as a satire of Mann’s own method, where the details and processes of criminality make way for the machinations of a plot run amuck.
And that’s why Blackhat is one of the tougher films to assign a grade. If we look at it through basic storytelling (plot, characterization, dialogue) it falls flat. But if we examine it through its entertainment value and sheer wackiness, there’s good stuff here. I guess I’ll have to settle for somewhere in between.