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.


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)

"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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.