The blue-tinted image of a man musing in bed in Manhunter. The stoic and unfettered sights of hulking masculinity in Thief, along with the film’s attempts to reconcile deviance and virtue; of criminal turned hero. And the startling visage of luminous pollution, with scenes of vibrant violence set betwixt the cover of darkness in Collateral. Blackhat features all of these components and is indeed a Michael Mann film. Yet while its beats and compositions and masculine preoccupations remain within the confines of Mann’s virile cinema, Blackhat is a film that explores uncharted globalized terrain for the auteur. It’s a logical step forward for a director concerned with the marginalization of the individual, though it is in this concern that the film registers as a bit too sprawling and unfocused.
The dark chasm of technology is illuminated by bright yet toxic strains of code in the opening Blackhat, suggesting that contrast is transgressive. Narratively, Blackhat is impeded in its faux-complexity, relishing in its piling contradiction. Really, everything about the film is an act of subversion, with resolute attempts at creating oppositional dichotomies. From casting Chris Hemsworth as an MIT-trained hacker (he may be the burliest MIT graduate in the institution’s history) to the global politics that see the United States and China working hand-in-hand, the film’s efforts are principally geared toward abolishing expectations. There’s plenty of antithetical imagery throughout the film, though it all accumulates to an overstuffed experience – this is especially highlighted by the film’s complex narrative converging into what, at its heart, is a tralatitious love story.
A Chinese-American task force springs for the release of Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a hacker serving a 13-year sentence. It’s a familiar set-up where our criminal is furloughed into society under the pretense of achieving a measure of patriotic duty – though this is complicated by the film’s Western sensibility colliding with the global implication of its narrative. The hunt is for a cybercriminal responsible for a nuclear meltdown, with a posse – comprised of rich character performances from Viola Davis, Tang Wei, and Wang Leehom – trotting the globe, piecing together remnants of clues.
Moving from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta, Mann’s compulsion is to move. And move he does, as his digital camera blurs and sways and tracks his subjects with the sort of intensity that’s missing from contemporary American action films. The film does, however, bear a striking semblance to Johnnie To’s 2012 film, Drug War. Mann’s not particularly interesting in knitting together multiple scenes though, instead accepting the inherent effect of blur and compositional chaos associated with following his perpetually moving characters in single takes. Mann has perfected this methodology, where action and movement are realized under the pretense of violence and realized in a visually coherent way. And it’s not merely through rapid movement that Mann achieves such kinetic anxiety. The film’s final sequence exemplifies the director’s capacity for extracting tension by taking large, moving spaces and condensing them with each cut and edit.
Mann’s formal aptitude is impressive, enough so to conceal much of the problems with the film (which are plentiful). Morgan Davis Foehl’s screenplay is at times an incoherent mess that Mann thankfully doesn’t give much pretense to given that Blackhat would function without dialogue and still maintain its visual intensity. Yet Foehl’s screenplay does irk in early portions of the film and is only compounded when lesser actors, notably Hemsworth, can’t elevate its silliness. Still, this is another example of Mann operating purely under his own terms and given the six-year delay since his previous film, the excellent Public Enemies, it’s the sort of return that reminds you of what’s been missing in contemporary American cinema.