Friday, January 16, 2015

Blackhat


Grade: 65/B

Blackhat tests the limits of one’s auteurism like no movie in some time. It’s a Michael Mann film through-and-through, but it abstracts his archetypical professionals to a level that makes 2006’s Miami Vice look like a John le Carré adaptation. It uses the same digital aesthetic he’s utilized since Collateral, but it’s even rougher and grungier than Public Enemies. Its plot is ludicrous, but Hitchcock’s old derogatory line about “The Plausibles” comes to mind. And while the film’s script doesn’t always do justice to its premise, Mann remains so skillful at filming action and process that it often doesn’t matter if it doesn’t add up to much.

Filling in the role of the quintessential Mann professional is Thor star Chris Hemsworth as Hathaway, a “blackhat” hacker furloughed from prison to help American and Chinese authorities catch a cyber criminal who’s attacked both the U.S. stock market and a Chinese nuclear plant. The team includes no-bullshit leader Barrett (Viola Davis), Chinese military officer and old MIT friend of Hathaway Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), and Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang), who immediately connects with Hathaway. The group goes around the world, from Chicago to L.A. to Hong Kong, on the hacker’s trail, but he’s always a step ahead with hired goons ready to meet them.

Again, there are implausibles here – the U.S. releasing a convicted hacker to find another is absurd, and Hathaway is the most ripped, macho hacker in the history of the world – but it’s more essential that the film keeps moving and Hemsworth is charismatic enough a movie star to carry it. On the latter front, the film comes up short. Mann’s heroes have always been taciturn fellows, but he benefits from casting stars that are sensitive enough to convey volumes of emotion with just a glance (James Caan, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Jamie Foxx, Colin Farell). Hemsworth, not a naturally expressive performer, can’t manage this, so most of his romantic or emotional scenes come off as recitations and poses.

Moreover, Blackhat is spare on a character level even for a Mann film. Backstories are largely dispensed with, and the dialogue that’s there is serviceable at best (Mann seems to acknowledge this in a post-lovemaking scene that shows Hemsworth talking about his father, only to cut away, suggesting that dialogue is secondary to image). It’s a film that wants to build its character relationships with glances and its story with forward momentum. That’d be fine if the cast was in sync – it works for Wong Kar-wai (who Mann seems to be emulating on a sensual level more and more), and it worked for Mann in the wildly underrated (if cultishly adored) Miami Vice. Here, there’s not much chemistry between Hemsworth and Tang, nor do his scenes with Wang give any real lived-in sense of history between the two. Only Viola Davis manages much with her threadbare character (whose one bit of backstory is best ignored), turning every side-eye and curt reply into a case for her as Mann’s next great lead (if he wasn’t so focused on brooding tough dudes).

Very little of it matters while it’s happening, though, because whenever the film is moving, it’s largely a blast. Hemsworth’s reeled off delivery kills most of his emotional scenes dead, but it’s suited perfectly to any of the scenes of him sorting through code or hacking,. These bits move so quickly that it doesn’t particularly matter that it’s conforming to some of the same movie hacker stereotypes that usually prompt derisive laughter. It’s not important that he’s convincing as a hacker, but that he’s convincing as one of Mann’s professionals, one who’s always moving forward and adapting, and one who’s not going to double-cross the government that jailed him because it’d be decidedly unprofessional.

Stuart Dryburgh’s rough-hewn cinematography isn’t going to be for everyone, and it’s sometimes actively distracting in dialogue-driven scenes. But Mann’s visual tics of shallow-focus close-ups against dark backgrounds or cool-looking heroes strutting with a bright sky behind them is cinema at its most sensuous, giving the film the kind of mythic existential punch that the director favors. His meticulous sense of place and procedure is hard at work, too, particularly in a breathtaking pair of sequences where Mann takes us inside a hacked circuit as it starts to go haywire, looking like the Stargate sequence from 2001 turned into a technological hell.

Mann also remains one of the best directors of action alive, always maintaining clarity and precision even when the camerawork is messy. A fistfight in a Korean restaurant (the reasons aren’t really important) pulls back and cuts to a shot that looks like it was on a cell phone; the raggedness of the image is jarring, but there’s a thrilling immediacy to it that’s hard not to be shaken by. A later gunfight in a yard full of shipping containers juggles shots of our heroes, the task force accompanying them and the people they’re chasing with an astounding mix of kineticism and spatial awareness, all while drowning out the sound with the (purposefully) near-deafening sound of gunfire. Again, the film’s assaultive elements are all purposeful, putting us in the same chaotic frame-of-mind and physical place as the protagonist without sacrificing coherence.


Whether Blackhat ultimately coheres or lingers as anything more than an entertaining thriller that capitalizes on modern fears is a bit more up in the air. Mann envisions a digital world that’s less a prison than an unruly, ungovernable realm that can tip the outside world into chaos at any moment, but he populates it with figures instead of people, actors instead of characters. His most passionate fans have already hailed it as a triumph of avant-garde action filmmaking and an early contender for the year’s best. Not really, but it’s a pretty engaging minor film from a major filmmaker.

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