September 29, 2016

Michael Mann's Blackhat: An Analysis in Five Shots

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and Chen Lien (Wei Tang) encounter a surprise explosion in Blackhat, the 2015 Michael Mann film.

Judging solely by box-office standards, Michael Mann’s career has faded since the success of Collateral in 2004. Miami Vice and Public Enemies both had sizable budgets and big stars yet were hardly surefire hits. The bottom dropped out with Blackhat, which drew little attention from audiences in January 2015. It is dangerous to correlate financial success with creativity, however. Mann creates remarkable sequences in Blackhat that rank among the most interesting of his career. A poor marketing campaign and a bland title did it few favors. It’s the type of film that deserves a closer look, particularly when you consider the way it depicts our chaotic modern culture. There are some flat moments and uneven performances, but they don’t overwhelm the intriguing project.

I caught Blackhat in the theaters during its original run and reviewed it for this site. I enjoyed it yet didn’t completely buy the love story or plot. This time, I’ve narrowed my focus to five key moments. These shots capture both what works and doesn’t in the complex tale. Mann and Director of Photography Stuart Dryburgh create a striking visual look that stands out even more on repeat viewings. Just a glance at these images reveals the different textures that Mann uses to great effect. The film looks amazing on the big screen and translates well to the home theater.

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) makes a deal with the Feds in Michael Mann's Blackhat.

Introducing Hathaway

Chris Hemsworth does the heavy lifting as Hathaway, a hacker released from prison to stop a cyber threat. Known mostly as Thor from the Marvel films, the Aussie star is a familiar face to most audiences. On the other hand, his presence doesn’t signify a particular type of movie or role. Mann needs this character to click or risk losing our attention. Hathaway's opening scenes are crucial in building the mold of this unconventional guy. Unfortunately, they do little justice to Hemsworth or the character. We first see him reading a book and listening to headphones in his cell. He's dragged through the corridors by a large group of guys that are taking no chances. This set-up implies his stature as a dangerous force, but the next scenes don't support it.

Hathaway is meant to be a world-weary guy with street smarts beyond his computer skills. Instead, it comes off like Hemsworth is playing tough and pulls us out of the movie. This shot appears as Hathaway faces down the smarmy agent from a prison meeting room. Hemsworth leans forward and the camera pulls closer to give us a better look. He’s a handsome guy, and the bruises by Hathaway’s eyes aren’t enough to make him a believable criminal. He's still too clean cut, and there's nothing Mann can do to hide the chiseled looks. The over-the-top accent just illuminates the rough start.

I can’t fault Hemsworth too much; the dialogue does him few favors in this scene. Hathaway works best as a quiet loner that can size up any situation. His quips are meant to be charming, but the scene just sits there. It’s possibly the worst scene in the movie and is crucial. Hemsworth rebounds well when the action begins, but the burden grows exponentially after this awkward start. Once Hathaway starts moving freely and even disrupting a crime scene, it makes the early hesitation from the government seem weirder and even less convincing.

Kassar (Ritchie Coster) prepares to take out the cops in Blackhat from Michael Mann.

Kassar Takes Charge

Blackhat clicks when the real chase begins to find the title character before he strikes again. Mann excels at making gun fights visceral and rarely takes a conventional approach. He also loves depicting professional criminals that are good at their job. One reason that we connect so much with Neal‘s crew in Heat is because they’re so capable. This story includes the nearly silent Kassar (Ritchie Coster), a formidable henchman for the main villain. His skills mainly appear through his body language, which suggest a guy who knows he’s the top dog. Invading cops are just another day at the office for Kassar. He’ll take charge and leave bodies in his wake even while he flees.

This shot comes right before agents disastrously invade Kassar’s home. He’s being watched by a surveillance team and knows it, but they’ll never see him sweat. Kassar just sits quietly and drinks coffee in the beautiful location while his guys take out the people watching him. Ritchie Coster’s knowing yet expressionless face reminds us that Kassar is no average villain. He has planned well for this occasion and will lead the agents to their doom. This calm moment sets the stage for the film’s best action scene. The frenetic camera builds more suspense for the people chasing Kassar than anyone else. It’s no surprise when the tide turns against them. 

Barrett (Viola Davis) stares up at a skyscraper and remembers 9/11 in Blackhat.

Barrett's Last Stand

Viola Davis stands out from the supporting cast as Agent Barrett, who must pursue the enemy and keep tabs on Hathaway. She has limited screen time but makes the most of it. Barrett is a good at her job and shows her mettle when shaking down a corporate stooge. Davis embodies her with determination yet also a constant sadness. Barrett walks around like she’s carrying an awful burden. We eventually learn that she lost her husband on 9/11 and has never truly recovered. Referencing 9/11 makes sense from a story perspective. Mann is depicting a brave new world of unseen terrorists and surprise attacks. Chaos can appear from anywhere. 

Barrett’s death strikes a chord because it arrives with little warning. She allows Hathaway to infiltrate an NSA server and then must pursue him. That conflict barely lasts once Kassar’s team begins wreaking havoc. This shot gives an extreme closeup of Barrett’s face moments before her death. She’s staring upwards at a skyscraper and obviously thinking about her husband. The image of the building is too on the nose, but the resignation in Davis’ face sells the moment. Despite her grave situation, Barrett seems at peace and ready to lose the weight on her shoulders.

This scene also reinforces the brutality for even trained agents in this world. Right before Barrett falls, Lien's brother Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) dies from a shocking car explosion. Arguably the co-lead character with Hathaway to this point, Dawai is likable and a real friend. The striking image at the start of this article showcases the brutal killing. Within a few minutes, we lose Dawai, Barrett, and Agent Jessup (Holt McCallany). There's no music in this scene, and the creative choice heightens the gunfight's brutality. It's exciting but not in the typical Hollywood fashion. 

Hathaway and Chen Lien make a discovery in Malaysia in Michael Mann's Blackhat

The New Revolution

Another challenge with Blackhat is following the trail of an enemy that’s largely invisible. There’s a brief cut to his back early in the film, but we don’t understand what we’re seeing. When Hathaway and Chen Lien (Tang Wei) uncover the real conspiracy, it’s surprisingly mundane. Exploiting tin futures to make money doesn’t have the same ring as taking over the world. The plan makes logical sense yet probably induces more confusion than excitement.

The big discovery also happens in a vast wasteland straight out of a post-apocalyptic film. This shot reveals the massive landscape and just how small Hathaway and Lien are in this world. They look tiny when standing in front of the jagged rocks near the Malaysian tin mines. Thematically, this moment shows how evil plans happen where no one is looking. This isn’t a Bond villain that wants the glory as much as the wealth. The Blackhat functions in faraway places that are extremely valuable but exist off the radar from the super powers.

This scene feels epic yet lacks all the bombast of the standard Hollywood thriller. The huge discovery means nothing on its own. This hopeless feeling extends to the open landscape. Hathaway and Lien are making progress and might stop this guy, but so many others are doing the same thing. Plus, the governments are far behind the curve. They’re more interested in protecting trade secrets from each other than finding the real enemies.

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) stares down his enemy in the finale of Michael Mann's Blackhat.

Hathaway Makes His Move

Blackhat’s climactic sequence feels epic because of the colorful spectacle in the massive parade of extras. On the other hand, it concentrates on a small group battling each other within the chaos. Mann takes his time and lets the tension build while Hathaway slowly approaches Kassar and his boss. There’s a brilliant scene with Hathaway gliding beautifully across the crowd to sneak up on the henchman. He’s all set to remove his main threat, but it’s rarely that easy.

This shot is a fuzzy close-up of Hathaway preparing to shoot Kassar at close range. Beyond its importance to the plot, this image perfectly embodies the mayhem of the last scene. Hathaway is ready to fight with a screwdriver if needed. The intensity on Hemsworth’s face sells how gutsy (and possibly stupid) this plan really is. Hathaway’s need for revenge at losing his friends drives him forward, and he’s barely the same guy we met at the start.

Another change-up is how this battle finishes; Hathaway’s prison brawls come in handy. He’s also facing a guy with little experience in the field. Unlike Kassar, the Blackhat is the Oz pulling the strings behind the scenes. Played convincingly by Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen, he looks more like the town drunk than a brilliant villain. His time is up, but the victory feels hollow. Hathaway and Lien succeed and are rich, but they’re fugitives in an unkind world.

Michael Mann's Future

The box-office failure of Blackhat casts doubts over Mann’s ability to draw large audiences to the theaters. His films also cost too much to work on a smaller scale. His next project is still years away, and the industry continues to focus on franchises. The TV landscape has changed even since the demise of Mann's TV series Luck in 2012. I’d love to see him take a shot at a gritty crime drama on Netflix or Amazon. His style and technical skills have drawn many devoted fans, but it’s too nuanced to draw hundreds of millions. I hope this isn’t the last time that Mann leads a major project.

This article is part of the Investigating Michael Mann series, which takes a close look at his remarkable films. Check out all the reviews on this page

Subscribe Now

Don't miss a post! Sign up to get posts via e-mail.

4 comments:

  1. I thought Blackhat was alright as I'm not entirely surprised that it didn't do well in the box office but I'm not giving up on him despite my disdain towards his approach to digital video which I felt was the reason why Public Enemies didn't work for me. I hope he can do something that will be gripping and not go too much into that digital video realm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The digital video style definitely splits people in two camps when it comes to Mann. I love that approach and think it's made his later career (especially Miami Vice and Public Enemies) so interesting. Blackhat does well on that front, but I don't think it had enough to draw crowds. The previews didn't sum up the movie well, and the title didn't help.

      Delete
  2. Very good article, i really like your choice of shots!
    I agree that the "Introducing Hathaway" part is a bit awkward and wooden but after this generic scene the film gets better, the tarmac/airport scene for example is beautifully shot (i also like the chilling abstract CGI opening through the computer).
    There are indeed many remarkable scenes and moods in "Blackhat", as usual with Michael Mann:
    the opening scene, tarmac/airport scene, the taxi ride and love scene, the restaurant scene, the two shootouts and subway ride, the plane taking off Hong Kong at night and the whole ending ( i liked the slightly ambiguous coda/final shot at the airport: the lead characters are free but not free at the same time! - looking anxiously around them, and the video cameras above them...)
    It's an underrated movie where Mann is still at the top of his direction skills and maybe, unfortunately because of its disaster worldwide box office, Mann's "swan song"??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are a lot of gorgeous shots in Blackhat; I noticed them more on a re-watch. Some of the night shots in Hong Kong are great examples, and I definitely agree about the tarmac/airport scene. It doesn't click entirely like my favorite Mann films, but I still think Blackhat gets a bad rap! I've read that Mann is working on future projects, yet nothing official seems to be that far along so far. I'll keep up hope...

      Delete