Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: Blackhat

by Patrick Bromley
Blackhat is Michael Mann porn. I mean that as a compliment.

If you're a fan of Michael Mann's movies -- and I am in a pretty big way -- you'll recognize all of the director's Mann-erisms (sorry) in his latest film Blackhat: professionals being good at their jobs; cities beautifully photographed at night (digitally these days); synthesizer score; long, contemplative silences. It plays almost like a greatest hits reel of his previous work. I might accuse him of spinning his wheels if I wasn't so hypnotized by all of it.

The film opens with a nuclear meltdown in China, set off by a hacker shutting down the plant's computer systems via remote access. The same hacker then manipulates the stock market, wreaking havoc on soy futures and pulling down close to $80 million in the process. Knowing that this mysterious hacker is far from finished, Chen, a computer security expert with the Chinese government (played by singer Wang Leehom), is tasked with discovering his identity. Along with his sister Lien (Wei Tang) and FBI agent Barrett (Viola Davis), Chen enlists his former roommate at MIT -- a brilliant hacker named Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) currently serving 13 years in prison -- to catch the culprit before the next terrorist attack.
As a "cyber-thriller" directed by Michael Mann (and apparently largely written, though he lost a WGA arbitration to receive credit; Morgan Davis Foehl is listed as the only screenwriter), one would expect Blackhat to be packed with tech-speak and detailed minutiae. At times it is, occasionally to the  point of impenetrability. It hops countries, characters pop in and drop off (and sometimes pop back in later) and everyone speaks very clearly and professionally. But complaining that the narrative doesn't always make sense is missing the point that the narrative isn't that important -- its pleasures are cerebral, but in form rather than content. Blackhat is the action movie as Art Film. It's about the mood of the thing; the vibe, not connecting the dots. He makes blockbuster tone poems.

The Mann film that Blackhat most closely resembles is Miami Vice (as someone who loves that movie a whole lot, that's no faint praise), from the way it follows a case that continues to ripple outward all the way down to Chris Hemsworth's protagonist, who is less a developed character than a guy who's just good at his job. He is the prototypical Mann hero: brooding, professional, walking both sides of the law and he wears clothes well. Many of Mann's movies, from Thief to Manhunter to Heat to The Insider, are as much character studies as they are procedurals; that's part of their greatness. Miami Vice and Blackhat (and, to a lesser extent, Public Enemies) are much more about dropping us into a world and living there for a time. One of Blackhat's problems is that the world into which it drops us does not feel specific to this film. I'm ok with that, because it's still Michael Mann World. I love Michael Mann World.
Of course the movie has its share of problems; I liked it because I love the kinds of movies Michael Mann makes, not because it is without fault. The dialogue is painfully expository at times and tone deaf at others -- Hemsworth shouting "It's not about 1s and 0s!" being the most cringe-worthy moment. Hemsworth himself may be miscast, though it's hard to tell with his character being such a cipher (though I was fascinated by what appears to be his choice to do a Michael Mann imitation, the same way that some actors in Woody Allen movies would just do a Woody impression in the lead). The geography doesn't always make sense, with characters driving away just to seemingly go in a circle and come right back to where they started. The terrorists' scheme doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, and Mann's choices to show the inner workings of THE COMPUTER feel more like something from 1999 than 2015. I can register the problems without being overcome by them, as the whole of the movie is greater than the sum of its parts.

I know that Mann's digital photography is not to all tastes, but I love the way Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography (and Dion Beebe's before him) gives the cityscape an intimacy and immediacy -- sort of the way found footage does, but with gorgeous formal compositions instead of gimmicky bullshit. I love the film's casual diversity, an accepted factor of our new global society. Though Harry Gregson-Williams has publicly complained that his score (along with Atticus Ross) was mostly jettisoned, the music in the movie is terrific in the way that it always is in Mann's work: cool, haunting, beautiful and sad -- the soundtrack of a love doomed to two totally different worlds. Blackhat acknowledges the speed and access granted by technology, and while Mann doesn't shy away from this reality, it's clear that he's a guy who still trusts some homemade body armor and a well-placed screwdriver over any firewall. It's why his action scenes crack with energy. Men robbing and threatening one another over an internet connection is too impersonal for Mann. Part of his code demands the face-to-face meet, even if that means shooting at one another.
Blackhat is already a polarizing film, with more negative reactions than positive ones in the critical community. It is Mann's worst-reviewed movie in years -- possibly ever -- with at least one outlet calling it his weakest outing since The Keep in 1983. I can sort of see why they think it doesn't work as a movie; what I can't understand is why someone might think it doesn't work as a Michael Mann movie. It has also already bombed completely, grossing only $4 million (in 10th place) against a budget of more than $70 million. Like Miami Vice, I suspect it's going to be revisited and reassessed over the course of the next decade, never to be seen as the director's best but better than its unfair savaging upon release. It is a vision of a techno-thriller from a filmmaker with a very specific vision. On that level, it succeeds beautifully.


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  2. I haven't seen Blackhat yet, but I'm much more enthusiastic about it after reading your review. I personally love MannWorld.

    And I'm so glad I'm not alone in my love of the film Miami Vice! Trudy kicks major ass.

  3. Great review Patrick. This movie is all vibe and visuals, along with a few excellent action scenes. The gunfight in and around the tunnel will stick with me for quite a while. It's not my favorite Mann, but so what. It delivered what I want. I'm sorry that more people aren't having a positive experience with it, but that's the way it goes. I'm glad I saw it with a buddy who isn't a huge movie fan because I got to hear him explain his own reasons for enjoying it, and now he's excited to see some more from Michael Mann (he's only seen Manhunter, Mohicans, and Collateral).

  4. As a proud citizen of Mannland, this review makes me very happy.

  5. Glad you liked it but I walked out. Just awful.

  6. I went to see this after skimming your review, and didn't realize it was getting pretty bad reviews. As much as I love Mann, I have to admit that this one just did nothing for me. For the first two thirds of the movie I was having to actively make myself pay attention because I was zoning out. Then something happened that my attention in a big way. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. From there on I thought it was better, but never actually good. I'm glad I saw it, but I can't say I liked it nearly as much as you.

  7. What a truly excellent review. Thanks for being so fair. I’m glad I’m not the only person that found a lot to really enjoy with this movie. It just feels wrong that this bombed so hard. Wait about 5 years for this one to start being recognized as a masterpiece just like Miami Vice is now. Pretty sure everyone hated that when it came out too… As you’ve said about Tarantino, Blackhat may be my favorite Michael Mann movie, because it was the one I was watching at the time.