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Criminally Overlooked: “Blackhat”

January 7, 2016

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As an avowed fan of Michael Mann, release of his 2015 film Blackhat was a somewhat bittersweet affair. Mann isn’t a prolific filmmaker, so any new film he makes is cause for excitement. But Blackhat was preceded by bad buzz, and its January release date wasn’t exactly a blinding display of confidence on the part of the producers and distributors. Unsurprisingly, the movie slipped into and out of theaters as stealthily as one of Mann’s protagonists robs a bank, only with a lot less to show for it in the end. And that’s too bad because while Blackhat might be minor-Mann and content to mostly recycle tropes better deployed in earlier films, it’s still a solid, if unremarkable, thriller.


The knock on Blackhat came not because of a ballooning budget, reports of backstage drama, or because anyone involved in the production went bananas (*coughJoshTrankcough*). Instead, Blackhat was derided by critics and the Internet caucus before anyone had even seen the film. It was a movie about hackers and Hollywood has a less-than-stellar track record with that genre (it’s basically just War Games). Worse than that, it starred Chris Hemsworth as one of the hackers, and while audiences might be willing to suspend their disbelief when Hemsworth wears his high-class orgy costume and pretends to be a Norse god, apparently believing that a hacker could also be a chiseled jock is a bridge too far. With these mockable points realized, it really didn’t matter whether the movie is any good. It was joke before it ever opened.

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Get back to the Marvel ghetto, son of Odin!

Blackhat is Mann’s stab at the kind of topicality he flirted with in The Insider while grafting it onto his favored genre: the heist movie. Mann must have seen cybercrime as a perfect way to stake out this new territory—after all, at the end of the day knockover is a knockover, whether it’s done with an assault rifle or a laptop, and that’s Mann’s turf. So he makes Blackhat not into the usual hysterical vision of hackers as wicked demi-gods manipulating every detail of the daily lives of we poor mortals when we’re foolish enough to use public wifi to download the latest episode of Serial. Instead, his hackers use their computers the same James Caan and James Belushi use propane torches or wire-strippers. They’re just tools to get to the money.

Blackhat begins with the remote sabotage of a Chinese nuclear power plant, causing a near meltdown. This is alarming enough to force the FBI and Chinese intelligence to work together to identify the perpetrator. The Chinese agent, Chen Dawai (Lust, Caution’s Leehom Wang) recognizes the coding in the program that opened a vulnerability in the nuclear plant’s system as having been the same as one written by his old roommate at MIT.

ROC Agents. they're chill.

ROC Agents. they’re chill.

Said roommate is Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth), a hacker currently serving time in a federal pen for defrauding some banks, and without access to a computer. In relatively short order, Dawai convinces his FBI counterpart, Agent Barrett (Viola Davis) to offer Hathaway a full pardon in exchange for his assistance in locating and arresting the guy who caused the meltdown. The FBI agrees because, well, movie.

Assisting Dawai is his lissome sister (and accomplished programmer in her own right) Lien, who takes a quick liking to Hathaway. And while their romance strains credibility (she seems to fall deeply, passionately in love with him over the course 72 hours—a good quarter of which must have been spent on international flights), the two of them have a nice, unforced chemistry.

Aww....

Aww….

The movie takes the shape of a mystery, with each network intrusion leading them to another location, another clue, and sometimes a fightfight or shootout. The trail of evidence leads them from L.A. to Hong Kong, Malaysia, and eventually Jakarta, where Mann stages a shockingly intimate final knockdown amid a candle-lit procession. In the meantime, Hathaway untangles the villain’s sinister plan, and, surprisingly, it’s rather mundane. Again, to Mann, it’s all about money. What is difference is the scale of the take—and the collateral damage.

As a crime movie, Blackhat is a nice and sturdy example of the breed. It takes a bit to get going, but when it does it moves along at a nice clip. The actors are all very good, with Mann selecting two exceptional Chinese actors (Chinese-American in the case of Wang, who’s primarily worked in Hong Kong), who are credible delivering lines in both Mandarin and English (no mean feat, that). But he gets an able assist from the likes of Davis, and the great, underrated character actor Holt McCallany as Hathaway’s US Marshal handler Mark Jessup.

US Marshals wish they had this fashion sense.

US Marshals wish they had this fashion sense.

As an action lead, Hemsworth acquits himself well. Unlike fellow Aussies Jai Courtney and Sam Worthington, he has genuine screen presence, as opposed to being another slap of Outback beefcake. He’s also credible as one of Mann’s hardboiled protagonists, who lives life with his wits and, when that fails, fists. There’s a contained meanness to him that undergirds his movie star good looks, and when his Hathaway decides to take on some correctional officers knowing he’ll get ass beat, Hemsworth sells it.

And then, of course, there is Mann’s cinematography. As always, his films look great, even if his move to HiDef lost some of the glossy sheen of his earlier works. Still, he’s good at creating distinctive visuals, which he does here, but he also makes Blackhat tactile in a way that he hasn’t managed before. His Asia is a teeming, crowded, sensual place. You can feel the heat in a Hong Kong noodle stand, and the grime in a Jakarta flophouse.

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Pretty sure she knows how to run, Chris.

Mann also stages two great gunfights, which, as always, are models of realistic gunplay. One of them is visually fascinating and exciting. The other is possibly the most wrenching action sequence I saw all year (ending in an unexpectedly poignant shot).

So, why the bad rap on poor Blackhat? Well, unfortunately all this good stuff is really just recycling a lot of Mann’s earlier stuff. Despite employing new criminal techniques, Mann still falls back on old familiar tropes and types. Hathaway might be a solid protagonist, but compared Rami Malek’s damaged, asocial hacker in USA’s Mr. Robot, Hathaway’s tough guy routine seems pretty uninspired regardless if you buy him as a hacker or not. It doesn’t help that Mann even reuses his own dialogue form earlier movies (“I’m doing the time, the time’s not doing me” and he breaks out the chestnut about taking the bank’s money and not the citizen’s money for the third time). The scene in which Hathaway figures out the bad guy’s plan is meant to be a powerful denouement, except that it’s a less-effective retread of the same scene in Manhunter—right down to the rhetorical exclamation “that’s it, isn’t it you son of a bitch!”

No, changing the location doesn't make it different.

No, changing the location doesn’t make it different.

Ironically, the biggest indictment of Blackhat was the one that the filmmakers probably thought would give their film the most traction: the e-mails released after the epic hack of Sony Pictures’ network. While a high-profile hack breathlessly covered by the news may have given Mann’s movie some topicality, the Sony hack and subsequent blackmail and extortion attempts showed a far more creative and insidious plan than mere robbery. Mann’s hackers may be bad dudes, but one gets the impression real hackers would consider them hopelessly unimaginative. When reality is more creative and interesting than the story you’ve dreamed up you have a problem.

So, that’s poor Blackhat. Not a bad movie, per se, but an average one with some good parts that make it worth a watch. Mann can still shoot a good movie, but it seems like he needs some creative juice.

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