Friday, January 23, 2015

Movie Review: Blackhat

Directed by: Michael Mann.
Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl.
Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Nick Hathaway), Leehom Wang (Chen Dawai), Wei Tang (Chen Lien), Viola Davis (Carol Barrett), Andy On (Alex Trang), Christian Borle (Jeff Robichaud), Danny Burstein (Assistant Warden Jeffries), Abhi Sinha (Daniels), Jason Butler Harner (George Reinker), Siu-Fai Cheung (Chow), Tommy Wong (Johnny Li), Ivan Ngan (Yang Lin), Courtney Wu (Samuel Wu), Adrian Pang (Keith Yan), William Mapother (Rich Donahue), Archie Kao (Shum), John Ortiz (Henry Pollack ), Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany), Elias (Ritchie Coster)

Michael Mann has always been a visual filmmaker first and foremost – a director whose style is instantly identifiable as his own. He makes films about men – and they are almost all men – who are defined by their jobs, but are often in existential crisis. His films can be viscerally thrilling but have a lot of intellectual ideas running beneath their flashy surfaces. He bridges the gap between Hollywood style action and European style art films in ways that no one else even attempts, let alone achieves.

The movie has a very busy plot – that takes its characters from Chicago to L.A. to Hong Kong to Jakarta in a worldwide chase of computer hackers. But Mann doesn’t seem much interested in that plot – only in using it to set up his philosophical musings. The opening scene marries the virtual world and the real world – showing how a hacker using nothing but a computer and code to cause real world physical damage. A hacker uses his virus to infiltrate a Chinese nuclear plant, and shut down the cooling fans, while fooling the system into thinking everything is okay. Everything gets hotter and hotter, until there is an explosion. Mann cuts between the virtual world – a series of lights, travelling through virtual space, and the real world damage. It is just one of many virtuoso sequences in the film, and immediately defines what the movie is about. Mann will later go farther than that, comparing the world his main character, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is in when we first meet him – Federal Prison – to the one he enters when he gets out – the real world with the rest of us, and finding them not very different at all. There is more space in our world that prison – and Mann pauses at times to let us see that – but we are still trapped, still monitored, still controlled.

If Mann isn’t really interested in the plot of Blackhat, except to make his larger points, that extends to his characters as well. Chris Hemsworth seems to have been cast – much like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice – for his physicality more than his acting ability. Hemsworth looks like a Mann character – he is looks great staring off in the sunset in sunglasses, or in post coital bliss with his love interest (the equally beautiful Wei Tang). To be fair to Hemsworth, his character is underwritten – a collection of cool characteristics than a real character. And that extends to every other character in the movie as well. Everyone in Blackhat looks great – but really only Viola Davis delivers a great performance (Is that tangible enough for you, Gary).

The screenplay for Blackhat is fairly ridiculous. The dialogue is often flat or on the nose – and Mann seems to know this as well (watch how he plays with the sound levels through the movie, including fading out of a dramatic speech by Hemsworth about his childhood). The main character is a hacker – although he does more as kicking than hacking.

So all in all, is Blackhat a good movie? I’m honestly not sure. I know I was fascinated by it from beginning to end, and marvelled at many of the visuals, the action sequences, the lonely cars cruising on empty highways, the dark purple night skies, the close-ups on the beautiful people. Every inch of this movie is constructed for visual impact – perhaps a little too constructed, as if Mann is obsessing a little too much on all these wonderful visuals at the expense of everything else in the movie. It certainly ranks lower for me than practically any other Mann film I can think of. But I know I want to see the film again. That’s something.

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