by Kathie Smith
Praise and damning have never been faint toward Michael Mann’s films. A poster boy for Vulgar Auteurism, Mann and his films embody the spirit of this critical reclamation: a swaggering style that embraces bullets, babes, and testosterone- fueled bravado. In other words, movies that reinforce a male fantasy of invincible men pushed to the edge—a formula that easily acquires proponents and detractors largely based on the eyes of the beholder. The entertaining effect, however, can be undeniably electrifying simply because Mann can so potently and elegantly sew these sequences together with flamboyance to burn. The best examples can be found in Thief (1981), Heat (1995), and most recently Miami Vice (2006). Unfortunately, Blackhat, Mann’s first feature in six years, doesn’t hold a candle to Mann’s high points: it’s a mashup of erratic editing and miscued dialogue that only works to deflate the propulsion of its all-too-earnest energy.
Director: Michael Mann
Producers: Jon Jashni, Michael Mann, Thomas Tull
Writer: Morgan Davis Foehl
Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh
Editors: Mako Kamitsuna, Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Stephen E. Rivkin, Joe Rivkin
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross, Leo Ross
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Wang Leehom, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, John Ortiz, Holt McCallany, Ritchie Coster, Archie Kao, William Mapother
US Theatrical Release: January 16, 2014
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Mann immediately throws us into CGI roller coaster, following a hypothetical path of a computer hack—down wires, across motherboards, through conduits, and back again—that successfully burns out the water turbines cooling a nuclear plant in China. Meanwhile, the same hacker makes hay on the US stock market (cue the same CGI ride on the grid) manipulating soy prices. Reluctantly joining forces, FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) is assigned to the case, but also to handle China’s emissary, General Chen Dawei (Wang Leehom), an MIT-trained computer genius who recognizes the terrorist’s code as something he created in college. Chen and his sister, Lien (Tang Wei), go to the US to investigate the hack, but he also has an ulterior motive: to get his former classmate and fellow genius Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) out of jail to help crack the code. Once Hathaway hits the bricks, the chase and the romance is on, sort of.
Blackhat is a movie of fits and starts. Mann’s signature frenetic gloss can be found at many turns—a slow-motion first touch between Lien and Hathaway, a bar fight that makes Hathaway seem more black ops than computer geek, and ample use of Hong Kong’s streets and skyline where the chase eventually leads. But interspersedome transitions so convoluted they border on the conceptual and dialogue that is not only hard to swallow but also occasionally hard to hear. Blackhat most certainly draws outside the lines, but perhaps not enough to be deemed experimentation. The script (thanks to first time writer Morgan Davis Foehl) is nothing more than inert with only Tang and Davis able to deliver believable lines here and there. Furthermore, if the pacing involved in typing on a laptop then driving in a car then typing and then driving again doesn’t grind the movie to a halt, then the inconsequential sequences will: a random helicopter ride around Hong Kong Island here and an inessential overdose of a Latino suspect there. The sum of Blackhat’s parts fails its whole in a big way.
For those not in the know, black hat refers to hacking with malicious intent, as apposed to, say, what the government does every second of the day. Blackhat is swimming in the issues of cyber-ethics but never takes a moment to question or even comment on them. Like in most of Mann’s movies, the attributes of good and evil rely on individuals, not institutions. And although the NSA is not portrayed as a knight in shining armor, its technology is—an NSA program (called Black Widow) acts far more heroic under pressure than Chen and Hathaway combined. Far closer to reality is the blurred line between black hat and white hat hackers, which Mann surprisingly doesn’t pursue with any great interest. At a time when the NSA and its private contractors are salivating over opportunities after the Sony hack and the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, the film barely even takes note on the issue of security vs. privacy in a post-9/11 world even though it’s staring you right in the face.
But Blackhat isn’t about reality, and its contemporary thematics can hardly be blamed for its failure to launch. (Principle shooting on Blackhat was done in 2013—probably right around a time where the headlines were “NSA Collecting Millions of Phone Records”—with the movie sitting in post-production with four credited editors for almost a year and a half.) The talents of the cast are wasted, even the minimal offerings of US-born Chinese pop star Wang Leehom. Davis phones in her performance and Tang Wei serves as little more than window dressing (see her amazing performance in The Golden Era when it surfaces on streaming in a few months). As for Hemsworth, his character is rendered into a one-dimensional tool (pun intended) that can pretty much physically and intellectually do anything. Mann and his cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh have some spirited camerawork peppered throughout, but it doesn’t make up for the Olympian leaps of faith required at every turn of this story. There is no doubt in my mind that someone could fashion a very strong chaos theory analogy on Blackhat detailing the finer points of this movie, but even then, it would still only be a theory.