It’s impossible not to watch a Michael Mann film these days without the context of his previous work in mind. Because virtually each and every one of Mann’s films connect so intimately with one another in theme, character and tone. Blackhat is no exception, a crackerjack procedure crime picture about a different kind of thief, tracking a different kind of criminal essentially retelling the cat and mouse chase antics of obsessive cops and robbers on ultra-grey sides of good and evil as in Mann’s previous films.
Blackhat (2015) dir. Michael Mann
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, Leehom Wang, Ritchie Coster
By Alan Bacchus
The moment we see Chris Hemsworth’s character, Nick Hathaway, introduced in a jail cell, smugly chewing gum, sporting a tight white t-shirt, with slick-backed hair, we instantly connect this to Brian Cox’s memorable version of Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter. This is both part of the thrill of the auteur theory and essential to the legacy of cinema. We’re essentially watching Michael Mann remake the same film over and over again.
While the South Asian locales are stunningly beautiful, fresh, mysterious and exotic, Blackhat is missing the gravitas and urgency of his more renowned masterpieces The Insider and Heat. The film is also burdened with the ugly ‘video’ look which has permeated his high-def phase in his career after he abandoned 35mm film in Collateral. When HD was in its infancy we could marvel at the crispness of the digital image and its ability to capture Los Angeles dusk so beautifully. We could also forgive some of the choppy action which does not hold up as well as good old fashioned film. While the rest of the world has moved on and improved action in the digital world, Mann still seems stuck on choppy video action. In short, there’s a distinct 30fps/home video look to Mann’s action sequences.
Sadly, this glaringly visual deficiency is enough to cloud one’s enjoyment and engagement in the picture. The story holds up and provides the same kind of intense cat and mouse chase plotting we all want to see. After two major hacks, one a Hong Kong nuclear facility and two, a stock exchange heist, the Chinese authorities seek to use Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) , a prisoned hacker whose original code was used in the computer virus, to help trace the crime to its perpetrator. It doesn’t take long for Mann’s crack team to form, which includes Chinese federal cop Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), his techie sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), and American FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis).
From here it’s a skillfully realized procedural investigation which brings the team to a number of locations across the globe, Chicago, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur and Jakarta. Mann’s lensing of the locales are often stunning, opting for much of the exterior shooting to occur during the same hour of dusk as Collateral. Three or four taut action sequences arrive quickly and shock us with its firm punctuation of violence. While Heat masterfully built its tension slowly before thekey action set pieces, in Blackhat, action erupts without warning, and often only lasting a few minutes or seconds, an effect which leaves the viewer on edge and uncomfortable for much of the picture.
A wonky love story doesn’t quite work, but the attention to the softer side of Hemsworth’s character is a notable and welcomed difference than Mann’s other cold-hearted heroes from previous works. And a number of sharp story turns keep up a healthy feeling of unpredictability. But like the admirable qualities of Miami Vice and Public Enemies, the work is tarnished by the conspicuous choice of Mann’s garish 30fps video look. All critics have pointed out these visual deficiencies, and yet Mann continues to go back to this look – even when these pictures have proved to be not-successful financially. But we all must take the good with the bad with these auteur pictures and at the end of Mann's career even a minor picture like this will have a valued place at the table.