Blackhat is both a clunky Michael Mann movie and a classed-up Steven Seagal movie. To perceive either statement as an outright pan is to delude yourself into denying the surface pleasures in either scenario. Whether you’re woozily mainlining Mann’s uncut visual narcotics or giddily bellowing “Woo!” as a heroic, lumbering slab of meat (Chris Hemsworth, in this case) snaps elbows, the rush is palpable.
Yes, Blackhat has less in common with Mann’s juggernauts name-checked on the film’s poster than it does with sweaty, hustling timewasters like Contraband (which itself transplanted Mann’s gauze-and-glitter aesthetics to the backwater). As sumptuous as you’d expect but dumber than you’d hope, Blackhat wastes its breath trying to puff itself up to Mann’s perfunctorily operatic proportions.
Some may argue if you’ve seen one of Mann’s meditations on machismo and malevolence, you’ve seen them all — the bokeh buffet, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out all-digital cinematography that, at times, appears to have come from a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. Still, few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. Mann’s singular action scenes exude tactical might and technical merit, and exist in a kind of middle-ground between slow-motion and hyper-speed — like the indeterminate passage of under stress. And it kills. None of Blackhat’s gunfights match the iconic Heat, but they are skillfully relentless, unmerciful and enthralling.
Cyberterrorism is the backdrop to bloodshed here. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh jam their cameras inside USB ports and beneath keyboards (the sight of omniscient, godlike hands speedily typing). But they still can’t make people sitting at a screen feel exciting. And although newbie Morgan Davis Foehl’s script ladles the tech talk on thick, it’s window-dressing for what intrigues Mann most — that porous border between noble intent and nefarious actions.
The title, referring to evil hackers, hijacks a Western trope of bad guys clad in black. Moreover, it gets at a hard, fundamental truth driving all of Mann’s films, no matter the milieu: Everything boils down to a type of violence, whether physical, social or existential. For all the new-world order this technical weapon implies, it’s wielded no differently than a caveman did a club. Not for nothing does the climax of a film predicated on cutting-edge tech feel so graphically medieval.
Sadly, too much of what comes before feels like Mann hasn’t quite shaken off the dust of a long break since 2009’s Public Enemies. And that’s the best-case scenario. Blackhat’s initial images are embarrassing, to the point that they suggest Mann envisions computer the way Ted Stevens does the Internet. In a scene that goes on for-ev-er, CGI effects track the pulse of a hacker’s malicious code up to a signal point … and then Mann repeats this scene to depict a second hack.
Clearly, these attacks — the destruction of a Chinese nuclear reactor and the manipulation of the soy futures market — are just a warm-up to wreak more havoc. It’s threatening enough to broker a hesitant, code-sharing alliance between American Feds (ably embodied by Viola Davis and Holt McCallany) and their Chinese counterpart Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), whose sister, Lien (Wai Tang) tags along for vague reasons. (The Americans bristle at buddying up to China, but briefly; it would have been interesting to navigate the political antagonism of these economically entangled bedfellows, but Mann never lets it simmer let alone boil. At least Wang and Tang’s presence pleasantly tips a cap to Hong Kong director Johnnie To, who carries on the international brotherhood of Mann in films like Drug War.)
In the code, Dawai recognizes mutation of a minor threat he created years ago with his MIT roommate, Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth). The blond, beefy bohunk clearly has studied the Mann method of mannered cool that came so effortlessly to Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell. But it feels like his notes weren’t the greatest. As his tough-tawk accent comically creeps up, Hemsworth never quite settles into the skin of a slick-haired badass.
It turns out Hathaway is serving time after fleecing four banks for eight figures. After Dawai persuades the Americans to pardon Hathaway in exchange for his help, he joins the team for an increasingly treacherous international pursuit. (Here’s where it helps that Hathaway, whose violent past scuttled his career, excels at throwing tables into people and slashing their faces with broken bottles.)
This is a natural opportunity for Mann to indulge in his usual dynamic location shooting — glittery locales that beckon with beauty as skillfully as they conceal danger. Under Dryburgh’s soft focus, Shanghai’s skyscrapers blur into digital circuit boards, a nifty metaphor for how constant interconnectivity informs our view of the world. A later jaunt to middle-of-nowhere Malaysia might as well be on the moon for how barren the land looks. And the shot of a bad guy’s boat barreling through the open water toward an urban harbor echoes the spectacle of 2006’s Miami Vice.
Unfortunately, Mann indulges much more deeply in a preponderance of plot and, subsequently, plot holes — the greatest involving an NSA bigwig who’s tricked into giving away a shadowy program after clicking a password-phishing PDF. (Dumb as it is, this development drives a third-act rumination on what America truly holds more sacred — its people’s safety or its government’s secrecy.) Mann also strains to achieve interest in any of the interpersonal relationships, parasitic or symbiotic, so central to his other work. Hathaway and Dawai’s bond amounts to a burly bro hug, and Hathaway’s turgid romance with Lien has all the charge of a long-form Dior ad.
Given that we know the muscularity of which Mann is capable, something that’s ultimately “fine” feels a bit frustrating. Still, even as one of the lesser efforts from this action auteur emeritus, Blackhat is still bleak, brooding and beautiful enough to skate by. Consider it warrior haiku — more concerned with form than function.