A divisive globetrotting thriller set in the elusive world of computer crime and hacking
[Produced by Forward Pass / Legendary Pictures]
[Distributed by Universal]
Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Morgan Davis Foehl
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, & John Ortiz
Synopsis: A furloughed convict and his American and Chinese partners hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.
Michael Mann has always been a difficult director to pin down. He has a love for making brawny thrillers, art-designed to oblivion, that can only be described as pulpy avant-garde drenched in neon and machismo. His films have always striven for a distorted form of hyper-realism, often taking its subject matter very seriously (whether it be bank robbing, the life of John Dillinger, or in this case, hacking), but warping other facets in order to serve the bigger picture. His films are filled with instances of characters doing unrealistic things in otherwise realistic worlds. It’s a juxtaposition that he has always worked with – a conflict of interest between art and narrative.
His latest effort seeks to immerse the infamously meticulous auteur in the world of computer-based espionage and hacking. “Blackhat” is a term used for a hacker that uses his computer talents for nefarious means, and Whitehat hackers are people who hack for noble causes. This very basic terminology harks all the way back to the classic Western, with the heroes and villains often being distinguished by the colour of their hats. This old fashioned and simplistic symbolism appeals to an a filmmaker like Mann who is more interested in building believable worlds, than he is in over-arching narratives.
Suitably, considering the subject matter, Blackhat is Mann’s first all-digital film. Since the turn of the century, Mann has been slowly abandoning film stock in favour of a more kinetic digital camera. Across Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies he slowly weaned himself off a reliance on film and steadicam, like a drug addict trying to stave off his vice of choice. It’s fair to say that reactions to Mann’s newfound verve for digital cinematography have been mixed at best; many have sought to dissuade Mann from this path. Of course, with film completely gone in Blackhat, the film has predictably been met with a lot of disdain, from both audiences and critics alike.
By removing the comforting sheen of film and motion blur, Mann has forcibly excised a barrier between the audience and his cinema – with variable results. Like it or not, Blackhat is the purest distillation of his personal brand of hyper-realism, shot with the same neon-bathed artistry as his earlier work. His shooting style (the use of negative space and the odd framing of his shots), is a master flexing his cinematic muscles and displaying his craft. Those who understand the language of cinema will bask in his brilliance, but those who do not are left in the dust. At 71 years old, Mann just doesn’t care what people think of him anymore, and while Blackhat isn’t his best film, it is the aging auteur completely uninhibited.
The film opens with a CGI-enabled walkthrough of the inner workings of a computer. We see streams of data rushing around with every keyboard input, but suddenly there is a corrupted piece of data, and we watch it spread rapidly like a virus, infecting the entire system and causing the shutdown of the coolant systems of a power plant in China. Chaos ensues, and this is what kicks our plot into action.
It’s an odd way to start a film for most filmmakers, but for Mann it’s integral to his vision. He has to use the visual imagery of film to depict the way data streams work so that the audience’s mind has something to imagine when the hacking sequences take place later in the film. Yes, it’s an over-simplified visual take on something that is practically instantaneous, but it’s an important visual metaphor; one which Mann implements later in a very different, and intelligent way.
Chris Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a muscular super-hacker currently serving serious time for a number of unspecified financial hacking crimes. He just so happened to share a college dorm with Chinese Intelligence rising star Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who is brought in after a mysterious assailant hacks the aforementioned power plant – which compromises the coolant systems and causes an overload.
The next target is the US stock market, which forces the FBI and Chinese Intelligence to form an uneasy alliance to catch the hacker. Naturally (for the sake of plot), the mysterious hacker has been using modified code that was originally written by Hathaway and Chen at university, prompting Hathaway to be enlisted by the unit and released from prison.
Chen of course brings along his system engineer sister Chen Lien (Wei Tang, Leehom’s Lust, Caution co-star), who despite her ample computer based talents, is introduced as an aimless woman at a bar, looking to score free drinks off easily manipulated drunk men. We never actually see her display her skills, and in true Mann fashion, she is literally there to offset the machismo, and trigger the inevitable cheesy love story with Hemsworth’s hero.
What follows is a globe-trotting adventure, while a dangerous mercenary group working for the titular blackhat hacker hunt down our progressively smaller group of protagonists. The real identity of the hacker is withheld from the audience until the last 20 minutes of the film. While that may sound frustrating for some, it is because in our modern hyper connected world, the omnipresent danger of hacking is a far greater threat than the individual perpetrator. In fact, once the identity of the hacker is brought to light, the threat is rendered inert, as it’s only a matter of time before they are neutralised. We are seeing this in the real world with groups like Anonymous, where the main source of their power lies in their secretive nature.
Hemsworth serves the role well enough, though Hathaway is one of the least interesting male heroes to ever grace a Michael Mann picture. He applies razor sharp focus to the specifics of his role and is believable both as a hacker, and in his scenes of brutal action. Long gone are the days of hackers being considered as fat, greasy, bearded men, and instead they come in all shapes and sizes. If a hacker can dedicate an insane amount of time to his computer to become a master, then there’s no reason why he can’t apply that same tenacity to his own fitness and physical skills, while he’s locked in a cell without access to technology.
Rounding out the cast are Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, and Michael Mann stalwart John Ortiz, and each of them perform well considering how underwritten they are. Davis has the most to do here, as an FBI agent whose husband was killed during 9/11. There’s some serious pathos bubbling under the surface, something an incredible actress like Davis can do wonders with. It’s just a shame that she is so under-utilised.
But of course, as with any modern Mann film, his greatest asset is also his achilles heel: realism. While most people will insist that they wish movies were more realistic, and decry some movies as being too far-fetched, the problem is simple – real life isn’t all that visually interesting. The truth is, hacking is not filled with the fast paced momentum that many viewers will be used to experiencing.
Traditionally, hacking is portrayed as aggressive flurries on keyboards, windows haphazardly opening and closing all over the screen in an array of distracting colours, while the person typing like a madman screams “THEY’RE BREAKING THROUGH!”. In actuality, hacking is far more banal to the uninitiated, so understandably the hacking sequences are slow, unrewarding affairs. Mann does his best to frame each keystroke and click with his kinetic camera, but ultimately the hacking sequences really bog the pacing down.
However, the hacking sequences are granted new life when the first action sequences burst into life. Jolting viewers out of a false sense of security, when the guns come out it all goes to hell. The camera is swift and precise, cleaving an intelligent path through the action in order to frame it in the most visceral and fitting manner. When Blackhat kicks into gear, it grabs you by the throat and drags you into the scene. As always, Mann’s realism and approach to action sequences create a visceral intensity rarely seen from other filmmakers.
Combatants react realistically. The camera weaves a path through the devastation, getting close enough so that you feel stuck in the middle, but without ever obsfucating the visual element. Guns are realistic and rattle with a deafening cacophony. Bullets ricochet with a nerve shredding intensity. Nobody is safe. Flesh is torn, surfaces are pummeled, and the enemy are relentless. Characters die at the drop of the hat, creating genuinely shocking scenes, that once the carnage subsides, have a haunting poignancy to them. Whether it’s guns, knives, or screwdrivers, weapons are used as tools, and the attacks are as precise and rapid as the keyboard strokes that defined the first half of the film. Mann juxtaposes Hemsworth’s methodical hacking with a latter scene where he stabs an assailant 13 times with a knife, rapidly, all over his body. The thumping of the knife’s entry is mirrored by the thumping of the keys, and it makes Hemworth’s character seem just as much machine as the computers he obsesses over.
The climax of the film is chaos; a muted battle ensuing in the midst of a huge parade in Indonesia mimics the opening of the film, with corrupt packets of data (in this case, Hemsworth plus mercenaries) clashing among the information that belongs there and is trying to mind its own business. It’s a beautiful scene; Mann’s trademark neon and claustrophobic shooting style clash with the litany of fireworks and torches wielded by revelers. The final result is an exotic blend of colours, and moods, and an extremely violent scene that will stick in memory.
Blackhat is a tough film to review; when it’s firing on all cylinders, Michael Mann basks in his legendary skills, indulging himself with jaw dropping action sequences, and intense confrontations. Stylistically, it’s beautiful, but also obtuse, with a grit that is unmistakably ugly, highlighted by the digital format, which is both a blessing and a curse – as is his own brand of hyper realism. Now that he’s in his seventies, he may well only have a few films left him in (especially if he leaves it another six years between each one), so it’s clear from Blackhat‘s inaccessibility that he’s stopped caring about making friends and new fans.
Ultimately, there’s plenty for Mann fans to latch onto here, but if you’re part of the uninitiated, it wouldn’t be wise to make Blackhat your first port of call.