January 21, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Blackhat

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang flee the scene in Blackhat.
Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and Chen Lien (Wei Tang) run for their lives in Michael Mann's Blackhat.

The long-awaited return of Michael Mann has finally arrived six years after Public Enemies. The question is whether anyone but devoted fans (including this writer) still cares about the 71-year-old filmmaker. Mann has been a pioneer for digital cinema and created a specific look that stands apart from the glossier style of the average modern movie. His films deserve attention, especially from viewers interested in the action genre. Blackhat was hardly a surefire prospect facing off with Oscar contenders in January, but it does feature Thor star Chris Hemsworth. It’s perfect counter programming to more serious winter fare, but audiences mostly stayed away. My Monday screening just included me and an elderly couple, which is low for a first-week release even on a slower night. Was the dismal box-office performance justified?

Critical reactions to Blackhat have been all over the map, and so much of its success depends on your interest in Mann’s work. It conveys his distinctive skills in several incredible sequences that rank among the best action scenes of his career. On the other hand, it’s strangely inconsistent and suffers because of an unconvincing Hemsworth and limited character depth. The challenge in discussing this film is deciding what drives your enjoyment. Are the odd, less-than-stellar moments enough to kill any interest? They didn’t ruin my night. In a world of middle-of-the-road blockbusters, Mann delivers an ambitious tale that piles on the plot and takes real chances visually. During Hollywood’s lower period in January, it’s refreshing to return to Mann’s cool world.

Hemsworth stars as Nick Hathaway, a skilled computer expert serving 13 years in prison for illegal activities. When a mysterious hacker initiates a meltdown in a Chai Wan nuclear plant, Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) enlists his former college roommate for help in exchange for his freedom if the culprit is caught. Dawai and Hathaway wrote the code used for both the nuclear disaster and an artificial spike in soy prices. U.S. Agent Carol Burnett (Viola Davis) joins Dawai and Hathaway to try and bring down this modern menace. Joining the fun is Dawai’s sister Chen Lien (Wei Tang), who predictably falls for Hathaway. The messy operation rushes to prevent the next attack, but the authorities’ primary concern is not the success of the operation.

The highlights of Blackhat are two action sequences that rank among the best of Mann's career.

Pure Adrenaline


Spending too much time discussing plot feels inconsequential, especially once the bullets start flying. Blackhat doesn’t have non-stop action, but the two major set pieces are worth the wait. The first is the frenetic pursuit of the hacker’s number one henchman Kassar (Ritchie Coster, Luck). Stuart Dryburgh’s camera scrambles behind the agents as they rapidly pursue the enemy, and it’s a visceral thrill. The camera shakes dramatically and places us on top of them when all hell breaks loose. The sharp contrast between Kassar’s deliberate moves to set the trap and his opponents’ frantic approach is startling. It’s a brilliantly staged sequence that should be difficult to top this year. Kassar’s men stand in shallow water near stone pillars while agents pursue them from multiple locations. Dwai and the Hong Kong police appear to have a tactical advantage, but it means little against such a formidable adversary. This surely isn’t Kassar’s first shootout.

Equally impressive is the second battle, which begins with an unexpected car explosion. It happens in the dark of night and resembles the best moments from Mann’s Miami Vice. The violence is fast and deadly, and the deafening gunshots make survival appear unlikely. It’s a beautiful scene that makes wonderful use of the Hong Kong night during the battle. The digital photography and up-close perspective create pure thrills that go beyond the gunfire. We experience these moments in a different way than most action scenes because we're right inside the mayhem; they have an intensity beyond the stakes for the characters. Mann sets the stage for this battle with a brief shot of a tracking device much earlier. It’s easy to forget this information as the story moves forward and not recognize the danger. Hathaway and Dwai are making progress, but each step forward leads them closer to disaster.

These scenes have a greater impact because we spend so much time looking at the virtual world. Mann finds a way to keep those moments interesting, however. In the film's opening scene, he presents the nuclear disaster by going inside the computers and following the worm to its destination. The camera zooms into a different universe that most closely resembles the original Tron. Instead of staring at a terminal, we’re experiencing the new world right in front of us. Mann worked with experts to ensure the technical side was accurate, and the hacking material feels authentic. The choice to open the film with an exciting and original look at computers is a clever way to avoid boring exposition.

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang in Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann.
The love story and plot details aren't so convincing in this film. 

The Flip Side


The less inspiring side of Blackhat is the inability to develop a convincing narrative around its thrills and striking visuals. In one head-scratching moment, Hathaway and Chen Lien split from the group and conduct their own investigation. Hathaway is under constant surveillance from suspicious U.S. agents and will return to jail if their efforts fail, so letting him run loose seems unlikely. What’s odder is the fact that Burnett and Agent Jessup (Holt McCallany) seem okay with those activities in subsequent scenes. Another moment shows Hathaway strolling up to the room of a key lead with only Dwai accompanying him. After discovering a dead body, Hathaway strolls around the crime scene and uses the guy’s computer. The U.S. agents seem wary of him at first, but that perception switches to total acceptance without much explanation. Some doubts about Hathaway's true motivations would also have improved the tension. He's obviously a good guy from the moment we first meet him.

An even greater challenge comes from the love story between Hathaway and Chen Lien, which begins quickly. Mann gives clues about the romance by showing Hathaway glancing at her body in a taxi, and Chen Lien is impressed when he knocks out three goons. Their sex scene is shot beautifully, yet it’s less impactful because there’s little chemistry between the pair. Hemsworth struggles with awkward dialogue about his time in jail and laughably keeps his shirt open whenever possible. Beyond the obvious physical reasons, we don’t get a clear sense of why she loves him. Wei Tang tries her best to sell the interest, but it diminishes the value of her intelligent character. Her skills are on par with the men, so why make their romance so generic?

Viola Davis as Agent Barrett in Blackhat
Viola Davis brings a lot more to Agent Burnett than what's on the page.

Bureaucratic Failures


A more intriguing aspect is Blackhat’s depiction of government agencies in both the U.S. and China. Despite the potential damage from a cyber attack, they’re more concerned with giving up secrets to the other superpower. The short-sighted thinking makes quite a statement about bureaucracy putting everyone at risk. There’s more concern about politics than the devastation caused by a nuclear meltdown. Burnett and Jessup are soldiers that don’t share their bosses’ methods, but their power is limited. It’s hardly better on the Chinese side, where Dawai receives no support despite a serious lead on the hacker. He expects more given his familial connections, yet creating problems with the U.S. is his government's primary concern. Despite the high stakes, the agents are fighting a battle that means little to their small-minded superiors.

The ultimate revelation of the villain’s next target is surprisingly mundane, despite its impact on economic markets. What makes it fitting and more realistic is the way it differs from the world domination plans you’d see in many Bond films. We're in Quantum of Solace territory with this scheme. A bleak Malaysian mine feels like the perfect place to conduct a crime with so little glamour. It reveals the hacker as a guy with no political or social motivations. When we meet the chilling villain (Yorick van Wageningen), there’s no disfiguring scar or other notable characteristic. He’s a poorly dressed man that few would suspect of being a huge threat to our future.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann
Hemsworth is comfortable during the action scenes, especially the exciting climax.

Taking Charge


Blackhat’s climax is effective with Hathaway working amid thousands of extras at the annual Balinese Nyepi Day parade. He employs a lo-fi approach in a desperate effort to stop the enemy plans. He’s no longer a faceless guy sitting behind a computer screen and wants personal revenge. The scene works because of excellent staging yet not because we’re hoping for Hathaway’s survival. We’ve just met the primary villain, and it’s hard to care too much about him. This lack of a real connection probably explains the mixed reactions from some critics. Hemsworth looks great but doesn’t really click in the part. He’s more believable in the action scenes than selling his computer expertise; one reason is dialogue that doesn’t give him much depth. At one point, he stares in the sky and basically says "gotcha!" to the unseen enemy. The other actors are stellar (especially Davis and Koster) and do a lot with limited characters. They’re engaging in the moment but don’t leave a huge impression.

It’s hard to complain too much about Mann’s return when you consider all that Blackhat has to offer. It’s a striking film and includes creative choices that rank among the most interesting of his career. Its closest companion is Miami Vice, which had a similar murky plot and visual sense. It helped that the familiar title and stars brought a stronger box office, and it wasn’t buried in January. One difference with the new movie is the lack of convincing personal stakes for the lead characters. The final scene delivers less of an impact than it should despite the frenzy that preceded it. Mann sends his characters into the sunset, but it doesn’t stick as a notable finale. He’s created a memorable film that shows he still has plenty to offer. The question is whether audiences are still interested in his vision.

6 comments:

  1. I'm always drawn to Michael Mann films - the aesthetics of them - there's very few films out there quite like them. However, I've not seen once, since I think, Collateral, that I can say I've enjoyed. There's always been a lack of depth or anything to draw me in.

    Saying that, I still watch the check out Blackhat. It's interesting you say it's closest companion is Miami Vice, which I was really disappointed with.

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    1. Jaina, I'm inclined to think that you may not love Blackhat if you weren't thrilled by Miami Vice or Public Enemies. Still, I'd suggest giving it a shot! There's enough in certain scenes to make it worth seeing, and it needs help at the box office too!

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  2. Nice review, i can't wait to see "Blackhat", i'm a huge Michael Mann fan! Too bad that the film bombed so strongly at the box office, Mann sure doesn't deserve this fate!

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    1. It is too bad about the poor box-office take. I feel like it wasn't marketed well, and the title doesn't do it any favors. I wouldn't call it Mann's best work, but there's still a lot to like. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. I saw this with 2 other people in the UK last and I thought it was very good, with flaws. IMO it's unlikely there will be a better US film this year in the $70 million price range.

    Since first reading the production details, I was concerned about the choice of first time scriptwriter Morgan Davis Foehl. I suspect Mann was all over the early drafts, because his fingerprints are everywhere in the final version - "I'm doing the time, the time isn't doing me", etc. As with "Miami Vice" and "Collateral", Mann now seems to have developed the curiously schizophrenic ability to marry painstaking realism about guns, hacking techniques, FBI jargon, mixed martial arts streetfighting, etc, with a completely implausible plot.

    But there are so many good things about it. The gun battles, obviously. Also, sorry this is pretentious, but I loved the binary light/dark visual patterns, which you can see here in the picture of the initial gun battle, and also in the parade at the end of the film. It's clearly meant to mirror the binary, digital environment of the 'blackhat' in some way. No other mainstream US director would have the vision to build this in. It's depressing to think that, with Mann now 72 and Blackhat a massive box office failure, we may not see his vision on screen again. Only infantile superhero franchises.

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    1. I'm also concerned that Mann won't get another shot at a film with this budget. To be honest, the deck was stacked against Blackhat from the start. The January release was trouble, and the title isn't great for drawing audiences. I'm not sure that Cyber would be much better, though it isn't worse.

      I agree that Mann is able to combine realistic elements within a strangely ridiculous plot. That's a great way to put it! No need to worry about getting pretentious. Mann's films inspire that type of reaction from the converts. Thanks for the great comment!

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