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Friday, January 16, 2015

Review: Blackhat

Michael Mann created some of the most iconic films of the 80s and 90s (Thief and Heat number among my personal all-time favorites), but around the 2000s he started to get... weird. 2006's Miami Vice in particular looked like he had reached into a portal to Hell and pulled out their adaptation of the sunny, pastel Miami Vice TV show, while Public Enemies was a fascinating (if failed) experiment mixing lo-fi handheld video style with a period setting. Blackhat pushes his increasingly alienating aesthetic even further to the fore with grainy video, uneven sound mixing, and periodically odd editing. I'd argue that he does so fairly purposely; I'd also argue that knowing this doesn't make the movie any easier to watch.

And yet... there's a lot to like about Blackhat, for viewers who can push past (or appreciate) Mann's increasingly bizarre tics. The film has an intense physicality, thanks in part to said alienating aesthetic, that contrasts pleasantly with the online action that drives most of the plot. It occasionally feels as if Mann were mourning the increasingly intangible nature of crime in the modern age, the loss of a personal code that comes with anonymity. And no one, and I mean no one, films cities the way Mann does, and in Blackhat his scope extends to a global scale, allowing him to play around in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and beyond. Each city gets a fantastic set-piece, too, a jittery, nerve-wracking action scene like only Mann can deliver.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor) should be deeply miscast as brilliant-but-criminal hacker, but Mann smartly moves away from the conventional movie view of hackers and treats him more as a con man, always angling to get other people to slip up and give him access to what he needs to find them, steal from them, escape from them, and Hemsworth has all the confidence he needs to pull that off. I see a lot of people wondering why no one has found a way to make 'sitting at a computer' exciting; the simplest answer is that, it simply isn't and never will be exciting, so an effective hacker thriller should be modeled more after the rhythms of a con movie than out conventional idea of a cyber thriller, something Mann gets, at least sporadically. More importantly, Hemsworth handles the film's stiff dialogue well, giving it a determined, pulpy vibe that gives it a pleasantly pulpy tough-guy aesthetic. Ignore his hilariously dumb introduction, and Hemsworth makes a tough role work... mostly

Sadly, the rest of the talented cast flounders a bit with too little to do. Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) is solid as Hemsworth's stock love interest, but the two of them have little chemistry. She doesn't really come alive until she gets a little skin in the game, joining the thriller plot whole-heartedly in the film's back half. Wang Leehom (Lust, Caution), playing her brother, has a few big scenes, but his hacker-expert quickly takes a back-seat once Hemsworth shows up. Both Wei and Leehom do solid work for a script that doesn't give them much solid work to do. The show is stolen, however, by Viola Davis (Prisoners). Davis plays Hemsworth's handler, a veteran FBI agent who recognizes the threat of this cyber-terrorist, and it is in her relationship with Hemsworth that Mann's classic love of dedicated professionals on opposing sides of the law comes alive and informs every scene. Davis makes the most of every single second she's on the camera, her brief expressions often saying more than the film's clumsy dialogue.

And there is plenty of that. What ultimately kills Blackhat, for most, will be the script by Morgan Davis Foehl and Michael Mann. There are a lot of smart touches - as I said, this is the most realistic hacker thriller I've ever seen in many ways - but the dialogue feels like it was written by a computer about half the time, stilted and full to bursting with jargon that replaces characterization. And while the plot is solid, the film goes for a number of stock thriller reversals that, with about two seconds of thought, make no sense. There are about a dozen moments Mann could have safely cut from the script without losing a thing, a dozen little plot and character holes sure to leave viewers shaking their heads.

Blackhat is, moreso than most movies, not for everyone. Its plot is intentionally roundabout, and it's an ugly movie in more ways than one. This shouldn't be your first Mann film, and I doubt it will be remembered as fondly as any of his more traditional hits, but don't write Blackhat off completely. It's not a great movie, but it makes for a very solid mid-January thriller and an interesting, if deeply flawed, addition to Mann's filmography.

Blackhat is currently available in theaters across the country. Written by Morgan Davis Foehl and directed by Michael Mann, Blackhat stars Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, and Wang Leehom.
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