Reviews

In 'Blackhat', Michael Mann Has Made an Impressionistic Action Movie

In this global thriller about digital terrorism, the visuals do not shape the story but rather are the story.


Blackhat

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2014
UK Release Date: 2015-02-20 (General release)
US Release Date: 2015-01-16 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"We are no longer in control." The tagline for Blackhat raises a few questions: namely, when were we ever in control? Of what? And who is "we," anyway? The poster art suggests some answers, none surprising or particularly interesting. Chris Hemsworth, as hacker extraordinaire Nick Hathaway, looks intently off-frame, a strand of blond hair denoting his hard work and access to a hair stylist. The blurred background behind him signifies his lack of context and, yes, lack of control. Below the title, you see tiny Indonesian dancers, and below them, tiny men with guns. They may or may not be in control.

"We" might be Nick, though of course we are more likely not. He is special, a gifted programmer and brilliant rebel, imprisoned at film's start for moving money out of banks. This is the result, he sort of explains later, of his impatience with institutional moral backwardness. In prison, Nick is awesome for the usual reasons: he works out in solitary, reads Foucault in actual book form, and handily disrespects the clueless warden. All this makes Nick the standard outlaw hero, loosed from prison when his former MIT classmate and code-writing partner Chen (Wang Leehom) takes up with the FBI, following a series of hacker crises, including a nuclear plant meltdown in China and an attack on the stock market.

With the FBI, embodied by wary Agent Barrett (Viola Davis) and a more muscular, whiter agent (Holt McCallany) who keeps track of Nick's ankle lojack, the sides are drawn for a minute, then redrawn when the bad guys turn out to be exceptionally well-armed and cagey. The showdowns become increasingly bloody, as Nick and Chen explain that the initial disasters are only signs of more significant damage to come. Their standard-issue ticking time bomb plot is enhanced by the knowledge that if they don't catch the big bad, Nick has to return to prison. This last stake is redoubled when Nick meets Chen's network engineer sister Lien (Tang Wei) and falls in love. They start imagining a future together, where he works as a repairman, dull and doting on his girl. Of course, you know that none of this is remotely possible and that Nick's subsequent confession ("I'm not sure there's light at the end of this tunnel") is more likely the case for them.

You also know that none of this matters.

As Michael Mann pursues his admirably consuming interest in style as story, Blackhat is surely one of the lesser stories. In this disregard for plot or motive or characterization, the film raises questions about what it means to watch a movie. Most obviously, it means you might attend to visual detail, honed skillfully by Mann's visual elegance The action scenes, the pulses through chips scenes, and the vehicular traveling scenes are rote, and also not. Even if the "pulses through chips" scene at the beginning, which leads to and from and to the nuclear meltdown, is too typical to be stunning, it sets up what follows. The point with this visual emphasis is not who is where or who says what, or even how the setting is arranged, but rather how the light works, how the focus racks, how the camera moves or, in many cases, does not.

Working with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh for the first time, Mann here makes the case that movies mean what they look like. The luscious images here spill into one another. Just before the nuclear facility explodes, you see a worker who's supposed to be watching, silhouetted by his distant monitor; guards in yellow and black hazmat gear drag Nick past other prisoners whose faces and hands react in pounding close-ups. When Nick and Lien discover a heavily tattooed suspect's body, needle-in-arm, the scene is all about their faces, their focuses, their steps toward working in sync, all rendered in smudgy tight frames, barely keeping up with their subjects.

Blackhat maintains this attention to visuals no matter how preposterous those subjects' behaviors. As Nick and crew rush to a shootout among shipping containers, you realize that space is not so strange in an action picture, but then the shots start to turn abstract, the shadows and alleys and tunnels more about echoes and glazy color than who's pointing weapons at whom. As the soundtrack turns to a steady run of dings, the rhythms stark, the causes and effects of the violence lose all significance. (These gorgeous dings almost make up for the mundane piano-and-strings swells that accompany the sex scenes). At last, the chief shooter, Kassar (Richie Coster) is close in frame, as if his face is pressed leaning into the wide lens. He doesn't speak; he only looks off, his face lined and beard gray and sharp. You don't need to know anther thing about Kassar, except that he's the most utterly grim individual on the planet.

This notion is reinforced more than once, by way of similar visual processes. But when he and Nick face off in Jakarta during a festival -- instruments clanging, drums throbbing -- the abstraction is close to ecstatic. Bodies move toward one another, saffron robes and golden headdresses bob, the combatants moving against the current of dancers and marchers, their faces set and their weapons drawn.

For this play of visuals, Blackhat is impressionistic action film, one that acknowledges the conventions of cinema but hardly more than that. Yes, it has what you expect: vengeance and romance, terrorists and incompetent US agencies. However, it also has color and shadow, movement and screen depth, which do not shape the story but instead are the story. The plot is both too in control and out, but the shots are absolutely taut, audacious, imperfect, and compelling. Blackhat is an action movie undone.

7
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