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.
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.
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.