Scott F. Evans
Athletes, musicians, writers, actors, directors… it’s tough when a favorite misses. It hurts when the realization sets in that maybe that person is past their prime. That they’ve said all that they can say or have lost something with advancing age. You want to give them more than the benefit of the doubt or make multiple justifications about what’s going wrong. Maybe even pretend to not see the truth. But it’s there, staring at you… daring you to be honest with yourself.
Blackhat is Mann’s 11th feature film. A director primarily of crime thrillers, his latest offering falls right into that wheelhouse. All of his aesthetics are right up there on the screen. But with Blackhat, there are some distinct differences. Instead of hardened yet stylish criminals engaged in contract killings, bank heists and safe cracking… these crimes all take place in the cyber world. An elite hacker sabotages a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong and manipulates the Chicago stock market halfway around the world. Instead of grizzled yet stylish police officers tasked with tracking him down… we get a team of cyber cops, and a convicted hacker.
And here’s where we run into one of the initial problems with the film. Although Mann shoots almost exclusively on digital video these days, he could be called an analog director. His stories and the characters that populate them are grounded. There’s a grit to them. They have accessible goals and fairly uncomplicated ways of attaining them. The scheme in Blackhat is not only ridiculously convoluted but it all actually occurs in cyberspace. The antagonist writes codes and clicks buttons while the heroes counter with the same, chasing his virtual and physical trail. Mann seems only partially invested in screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl’s e-action, so a team of stony killers is improbably introduced. Given the nature of our set up, conflict should have been resolved over keystrokes and mouse clicks. Instead Blackhat makes a hard right and delivers exciting shootouts and brutal hand-to-hand combat. NOW we’ve got a Michael Mann movie.
Up to where this type of action kicks in, you can see Mann wrestling with trying to make hacking as visually exciting as James Caan cracking a safe (Thief: 1981). The camera floats through a CG landscape of motherboards and processors as malware infects the system, ceding control to the hacker. But the attempt fails because we’ve seen it done in every film that has dealt with hacking. It’s a pretty visual that’s reminiscent of a scene from Tron but dramatically inert. And maybe that’s why films about hackers tend to either fail or take huge liberties with the process. It’s just a visually uninteresting process. Where most of these types of films have actors furiously typing away and yelling techno-babble at each other, Mann avoids all of that. Instead he has them getting into shootouts in the sewers and backstreets of Hong Kong. And true to Mann form, these are Blackhat’s best moments.
Mann has assembled a solid cast. On the surface, Chris Hemsworth seems horribly miscast as our convicted hero hacker Hathaway. But Mann is not remotely interested in a realistic take on the hacking trade. Hemsworth is cut from the same cloth as all of Mann’s morally gray heroes. He’s a professional. He wants something. He’s willing to cut a deal to get it… as long as it doesn’t violate his code. Leehom Wang as Chen Dawai, Hathaway’s old friend and an officer in the Chinese government’s cyber unit, also does good work here. Wei Tang plays his sister, Chen Lien, also an expert computer specialist. And although she predictably becomes Hathaway’s love interest, Mann never allows Wei to regress into a damsel-in-distress role. On the American team, we have Viola Davis as FBI agent Carol Barrett. This could have been a thankless role, but Davis is able to bring some charm to the part, subtly stealing a couple scenes right out from under the leads. Holt McCallany plays US Marshal Mark Jessup. The script doesn’t give the character much to say or do…until the shooting starts. Ritchie Coster and Yorick van Wageningen play the hired gun Elias Kassar and evil hacker Sadak respectively. Neither of them really come off the screen but Coster’s Kassar is much more memorable than his completely forgettable boss Sadak. And that’s the fault of the bad fit between director and script.
Blackhat would’ve probably worked had Mann either completely tossed Foehl’s script and went with a more traditional (analog) international crime story, or had Legendary Pictures hired a more cyber-friendly director. But with the track record of cyber-crime films being so poor, maybe this is a subgenre that’s just not made for the cinema.
As a die-hard Michael Mann enthusiast, I’m going to dishonestly recommend Blackhat. Not because I like it. I don’t. But I’d hate to see Mann get tossed into “director jail” this late in his career and not have an opportunity to redeem himself.