Michael Mann’s attempt at an artsy, abstract Bond film is stupidly-plotted, but totally visceral and stylish.
Blackhat stars Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway – an imprisoned, expert computer hacker with a special set of skills that include having an incredible, male-model physique, shampoo-commercial hair, a keen eye for a number of different kinds of violence and – most importantly – the ability to type really, really fast. And when an unknown computer hacker blows up a Chinese nuclear power plant, the FBI has no choice but to turn to the blackhat hacker Hathaway (try saying that five-times fast) to catch him.
Full-disclosure here: I’m a hardcore Michael Mann fanboy – a “Mannboy,” if you will. I genuinely love the majority of his filmography -and it’s worth noting that that could be the reason it’s so easy for me to turn a blind eye to some of the films glaring faults, but I absolutely adored Blackhat, through-and-through.
Blackhat is, at it’s core, Mann’s attempt at an artsy, subverted James Bond film – less involved in the basic plot mechanics and realism of hacking, computers and globe-trotting, and more interested in its abstract vision of the physical and virtual world. It’s a film where style, mood and setting hold more weight than character. How does one navigate and operate in an increasingly shifting, virtual world, and how does that affect the physical one? These are the things Mann is using his filmmaking to ponder. Blackhat may not work with you on the surface-level – as a piece of action entertainment – as it seems to already not be for so many others, and that’s perfectly fine. But you have to know Mann is one of the most interesting, unconventional American auteurs working today and nothing he does is by accident. This is exactly the film he wanted to make, and it fits in right along with his other digital work like Collateral and Miami Vice. Might eventually be a neat companion piece to them, honestly.
It’s a meticulous, calculated film and though it may not come off that way explicitly, viewing the film through the experimental – almost abstract – lens Mann is painting for us makes Blackhat easily one of the most viscerally engaging, existential action/thrillers in recent memory.
Working with what’s notably a bland, mediocre script, Mann applies all of his signature visual and tonal flourishes – or Mann-erisms, as most have taken to calling them – and turns it into something fresh. Like the usual moody, existential moments Mann gives his lead as they look out into something vast – like the ocean in Heat or The Insider), but here Hemsworth has one looking out at an airport tarmac, revelling in the pure, unadulterated freedom he’s tasting, where for the first time in recent memory he can actually go anywhere – like he does in the virtual world. Again, connecting the virtual and the physical. It’s a silent moment where intuition and physical understanding is emphasized: how do these people feel each other and read each other on an internal, primal level? Another theme that carries it’s way across the majority of Mann’s filmography.
And what follows is a plot where characters do ridiculous, contrived things but Mann doesn’t care. Halfway through learning Hathaway’s backstory the audio literally fades away and ignores him because who cares? I don’t. Mann doesn’t. The real narrative is obvious right from the film’s opening shot of earth – now infinitely connected and borderless through technology, we descend into the computers themselves, flying through mainframes and what-have-you’s like they were skyscrapers, emphasizing the physical distance between the power plant about to explode and the assailant who’s going to make it happen but also the physicality of the computers themselves, and the literal, physical connectedness they bring us and, even further, how these physical people operate and move through our increasingly borderless world like data. It’s an expert piece of filmmaking that immediately establishes the literal and thematic journey we’re about to go on – one of cat-and-mouse where the goal is to remove the distance that was just established. Which is why the final action setpiece – which is incredibly intimate and personal – is so satisfying and brilliant. That setpiece may not make sense logically but damn does it work thematically and viscerally, and that’s the perfect metaphor for Blackhat itself.
And speaking of action setpieces, I feel safe in betting that the action in Blackhat will be the most engaging, immediate action we see in 2015. And part of that is Mann’s incredible, digital cinematography. I mean it when I say no one shoots digital like he does. Watching a Michael Mann film always reminds me that we spend way too much time and money trying to make digital look like film – trying to replicate that cinematic feel our eyes are accustomed to. Mann doesn’t do that. He shoots video to make it look like video – to get the urgency and immediacy of video. And not in a documentary or found footage kind of way, though he certainly borrows techniques from both them from time-to-time, but in a completely, jarringly new way that only he is doing right now. His cinematography pulsates. It lights up – especially at night. It’s electric. And though some may not be attuned to his style or what he’s trying to do, this is undoubtedly a gorgeously-composed film.
… [takes a deep breath] Looking back, this review is less of a review and more of the weird, in-defense-of mumbo jumbo I usually hate but I’m sorry, folks. I truly adored Blackhat. It’s the stupidly-plotted January thriller we get every year, but done with real panache and filmmaking. It’s visceral and existential and almost abstract. I loved it. Bite me.