Thursday, September 9, 2021

Reserved Seating Presents The Bomb Squad: BLACKHAT

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who do time on our terms, not theirs.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: Our series on notorious box office bombs continues with a movie that has become a bit of a cult favorite at F This Movie! - 2015’s Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann and starring Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, and Wang Leehom. This cyberthriller tells the story of Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth), a convicted computer hacker currently serving a sentence in prison. FBI Special Agent Carol Barrett (Davis), with the cooperation of P.L.A. Captain Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), spring Hathaway from prison to help them take down ‘The Blackhat’ (played by Yorick van Wageningen) who is committing acts of cyberterrorism to manipulate the stock market to enrich himself, fund further crimes and live infamously atop the dark web’s virtual scoreboard.

The plot of Blackhat isn’t what’s important, and neither are the characters to be honest. This is pure Michael Mann cinema in all his stylistic glory. It’s the ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ compilation of Mann’s tropes and fascinations and as a fan of the bulk of his work, I enjoy Blackhat quite a bit. This recent revisit was my first since seeing it in theaters (right before seeing The Wedding Ringer!) and my feelings stayed largely the same, which is that the film is a bit underrated. It doesn’t reach the heights of Mann’s best work (e.g. Heat and The Insider), but it feels part & parcel to other strong entries in Mann’s filmography like Collateral and Miami Vice which were similar Cinemas of Cool and used digital photography to enhance the sense of realism. I really enjoyed Chris Hemsworth’s performance in Blackhat, too. He’s not the most convincing hacker in the world but in the end when he has to go into action mode, he’s the right man for the job. I also can’t get out of my head that he’s doing a Michael Mann vocal impression after Patrick pointed that out in his original review.

What did you think of Blackhat, Rob?
Rob: This viewing was the most I’ve ever liked Blackhat. I still find it plodding in places, as there’s a lack of character depth that makes its 135 minute runtime a little unnecessary, but it is absolutely the “greatest hits” of Michael Mann’s filmmaking style that you described. It’s such a mood movie, something you feel about instead of think about. This viewing also made me consider how much Michael Mann’s style has evolved while his ethos has stayed the same, how his headfirst dive into digital filmmaking is both cutting-edge and also totally in keeping with the verite style of earlier hits like Heat. As the movie went on, I found myself imagining him on set — handheld camera strapped to his shoulder — finding angles and moments in-between the action and then heading to the editing room to assemble a narrative out of those shaved edges. No one else makes romance out of those moments like Mann; no one else commits so hard that we can’t help but feel something. Like, there’s a bit where we watch Hemsworth drive around a parking structure for about twenty seconds longer than it feels like we need to at first, but it all makes sense when we see the result. He’s another director who just understands cinematic energy.

The other thing that stood out to me was the strength with which Mann and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl handle the tech/hacker nonsense in an accessible, dramatically propulsive way. They understand that our interest doesn’t come from the pornography of the the tech (think Swordfish), but rather the degree to which the characters negotiate it with expertise. If they get it, then we get it. Contemporary reviews criticized Hemsworth’s casting as a hacker (“Hackers can’t be hunks,” etc.), but not only is that bullshit, it disregards the romantic thriller tone and mood in which Mann is couching his story. Everyone in this movie is hot, and everyone in this movie understands the stakes of their mission. Everyone is good at their jobs. We like that stuff!

Adam: Going back to what you said about the computer elements of the movie, it was driving me crazy how poor the IT security was in the film at times. I say this because I have to take trainings on this several times a year at work and one of the big rules is that hackers will circumvent traditional (and effective) IT security by preying upon employees making dumb and/or rushed decisions. For example, there’s a moment in Blackhat where one of the hackers goes up to someone and is like “Hey, you don’t know me but plug in the USB drive.” Yeah, don’t do that. In the scene where Hemsworth creates a keylogger to track William Mapother’s keystrokes, I kept saying in my head “That’s not your boss! Did you check the email address in the TO field? Did you double check that it’s him asking for this unorthodox request?” It actually made the movie more fun for me because I felt like a Mann character who is also good at their job.

Rob: Totally, though I think a lot of us have had co-workers who have mishandled their fair share of cybersafety protocols (#ReplyAll). Anyway, while I don’t think Blackhat is anywhere close to the masterpieces we’ve mentioned already, it’s still a Michael Mann movie. It’s still moody and bright and muscular and delicate and all the other things we love about him. I could fall asleep to this movie every night, and I mean that as a compliment.
Adam: This is going to sound weird, but from Miami Vice onward I like how he shoots...shooting. It’s like Mann was bored at the normal process of filming a gunfight and came up with a way to reinvent it in his later films. The pops are startling. I hate guns in real life, but for action cinema I find what he's trying to be really effective. And the ending of this film is great - Hemsworth agrees to a meeting with the bad guys, duct tapes a bunch of phone books to his torso, loads up on knives and finishes the task at hand. Blackhat starts out so impersonal and techie in its violence at the beginning and in the end transitions to something very analog and brutal.

Rob: The magazine thing caught me off guard at first because it had me thinking of The Wolf of Wall Street. I agree though, that there’s always something so uniquely weighty and...I don’t know, metallic, I think, about Mann’s action. It’s almost the exact opposite of the balletic gunfights in something like The Matrix, but equally as effective. This movie has the “Indiana Jones punch sound” of handgun bursts, and the guttural nature of the stabbing is equally impressive. And gross. Our bodies are gross.
Adam: Are there any Mann films you’ve yet to see or feel like you want to revisit? I need to see Thief (which I keep waiting to see theatrically) and The Keep (which is available to rent on YouTube so perhaps this October). I also need to revisit Manhunter and The Last of the Mohicans, both of which I’ve only seen once a long time ago and only fleetingly remember. I love this guy’s work except for Ali and Public Enemies. Both of those movies should have been so good!

Rob: With the exception of The Keep, I've seen them all. I think you’ll love Thief. The one I always mean to rewatch and never do is Collateral. I’ve been saving it for this “One Crazy Night” movie marathon I keep planning but never have time to execute. One day!

Our Hundos series returns next week with 1993’s So I Married An Axe Murderer. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you guys so much for championing this movie. It's great, and so sadly dismissed/ignored when it was released. I enjoyed this writeup as always!