In the world of Michael Mann, no successful justice is wholly righteous, no bad deed is without a thrill, and whether physical, historical, social or existential, everything boils down to an act of violence. Some may argue that if you’ve seen one of Mann’s often bleak, typically brooding and always beautiful meditations, you’ve seen them all — the buffet of bokeh cinematography, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out digital cinematography that seems captured on a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. But no modern director feels as attuned to crime’s contradictions, the perils of punitive pursuits and the roiling emotions running through both. And few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. To the naysayers this month, we say … C’mon, Mann.
Blackhat is both a clunky Michael Mann film and a classed-up Steven Seagal movie. To perceive either statement as an outright pan is to deny yourself the surface pleasures of either scenario. Whether you’re woozily mainlining Mann’s uncut visual narcotics or giddily bellowing “Woo!” as a heroic, lumbering slab of meat (in this case Chris Hemsworth) snaps elbows, the rush is palpable.
Sure, Blackhat has less in common with his past juggernauts name-checked on the film’s poster than it does with sweaty, hustling time-passers like Baltasar Kormákur’s Contraband (a Mark Wahlberg vehicle that itself transplanted Mann’s gauze-and-glitter aesthetics to America’s backwaters). As sumptuous as you’d expect but perhaps just a bit dumber than you’d hope, Blackhat wastes its breath trying to puff itself up to Mann’s perfunctorily operatic proportions. (Oh, is there a director’s cut? Of course there is. It’s a half-star better, but it’s available at home only whenever it happens to air on FX.)
For all its flaws, Blackhat still exudes Mann’s traditional tactical might and technical merit and exists in a kind of middle-ground between slow-motion and hyper-speed — like the indeterminate passage of time in moments of stress. And it kills. None of Blackhat’s gunfights match 1995’s iconic Heat, but they are skillfully relentless, unmerciful and enthralling.
Cyberterrorism is the backdrop to the bloodshed here. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh jam their cameras inside USB ports and beneath keyboards; the sight of hands speedily typing appearing with godly omniscience. But they still can’t make people sitting at a screen feel exciting. Morgan Davis Foehl’s script ladles the tech talk on thick, but it’s all just window dressing for what most intrigues Mann — that porous border between noble intent and nefarious action.
The title, referring to evil hackers, hijacks a Western trope of bad guys clad in black. For all the new-world order their technical weapon implies, they wield it no differently than a caveman did a club. Not for nothing does the climax of a film predicated on cutting-edge gadgetry feel so graphically medieval. Mann knows the line between sophistication and savagery is razor-thin. Sadly, too much of what comes before feels like Mann didn’t quite shake the dust off a long break between this 2015 film and 2009’s Public Enemies. And that’s the best-case scenario. The initial images are embarrassing, to the point that they suggest Mann envisions computers the way Ted Stevens did 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. (The director’s cut shuffles these events around to elevate stakes throughout the film rather than land a one-two punch at the jump.)
Clearly, these attacks — the destruction of a Chinese nuclear reactor and the manipulation of the soy futures market — are just a warmup 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 2012’s Drug War.)
In the code, Dawai recognizes mutation of a minor threat he created years ago with his roommate at MIT, Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth). The blond, beefy bohunk clearly studied the Mann method of mannered cool that came so effortlessly to Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell. But it feels like his crib 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.)
A film more taken by form than function affords 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 today. 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 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 — the safety of its people or the secrecy of its government). 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. (The director’s cut spends less time trying to boom this go-nowhere love story into anything worth caring about; indeed, their sex connections here seem rooted in a natural fear / adrenaline response, which works well enough for this material.)
Given that we know the muscularity of which Mann is capable, something like Blackhat that’s flabby and just fine feels a bit frustrating. Still, even as one of the lesser efforts from this preeminent filmmaker, it’s still bleak, brooding and beautiful enough to skate by. It might not be his usual warrior poetry. But it suffices as warrior haiku.