Michael Mann hit a sudden critical and financial wall with Blackhat, his much-anticipated (by the Mann faithful, anyway) hacker thriller, released in January 2015 and now on Blu-ray and DVD. In the past, even Mann’s less successful films, like Miami Vice and Ali, were good for at least moderate attendance at the domestic box office and some enthusiastic reviews. Blackhat, in contrast, was seen by an audience smaller than Hackers garnered when it flopped 20 years ago, and received some of the worst notices of the filmmaker’s career.
But Blackhat should still be of interest to those Mann cultists due to the way it, like its predecessor Public Enemies, distills his style into something both more and less than a conventional thriller. Here Mann follows American and Chinese operatives as they spring jailed master hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to help them stop a mysterious series of global cyber-crimes. Unlike Public Enemies, Blackhat is pretty rote as a story and contains no truly memorable character — unless Hemsworth’s impressive abs count. But as a series of digitally captured images, of nighttime cityscapes and moody, makeshift command centers, the film, like its predecessor, is beautiful. As a Mann project, it’s minor but pure.
Of course, these days “Pure Mann” has a way of bothering even some of the director’s most ardent (former) supporters, especially those repelled by the digital-video aesthetic he’s been developing for the past 15 years. Early in the evolution of that technology, Mann embraced the smear-y, thin texture of digital video, which is great for low-light sequences; it was also acclaimed specifically for its capturing of nocturnal Los Angeles in Collateral. However, it is unmistakably video rather than an approximation of film, even as the medium has gotten more sophisticated in making that approximation. Digital is still not film, and Mann knows how to use the flexibility of the former to get in close and move fast, as when the camera sticks close on Hemsworth’s face as he cases a meeting spot. The cinematography in Blackhat, by Stuart Dryburgh, has a seedy, neon-lit immediacy; the texture of the movie is HD-friendly on Blu-ray, but works best on a big screen, where its mood becomes more seductive and immersive.
Mann was born to shoot under the lights and bustle of Hong Kong at night. He was perhaps not born to make a high-tech hacking thriller, but who is, really? He seems interested in the nuts and bolts of fighting cyberterrorism but not particularly interested in making those nuts and bolts accessible or conventionally exciting, at least until they cause a booming shoot-out or a stabby fight scene, which are staged with his customary skill. This continues his recent tradition of mounting procedurals that explain very little about the procedures they chronicle. But Mann does sometimes adapt the computer-movie genre conventions to his style: Blackhat indulges in shots that zoom through wires, into computer guts — and then goes further, with a kind of 2001-ish humming abstraction as the (virtual) camera heads deeper and deeper into the data stream.
Outside that data stream and those beautiful abstractions, Blackhat sometimes falls short of Mann’s best, though it’s a lot more entertaining than the solemn emptiness of Miami Vice. Hemsworth’s handsome, cut, self-improving longhaired genius hacker, able to take control of his furlough negotiations immediately and confidently (and apparently include a stipulation that he never be forced to button his shirt all the way up), is more romanticized and absurd than the more nuanced heroes of Mann’s other films – moreso, amazingly, than the romantic outlaw hero Johnny Depp played in Public Enemies. Yet for all of his vaunted computer mastery, Hathaway does more policework than hacking, proving himself crazily invaluable and irreplaceable; he’s even allowed to go out on actual tactical missions for reasons never really explained.
Mann obviously worships Hathaway’s philosophical masculinity, and maybe even projects himself on it to some degree (Hemsworth’s accent is even slightly Mann-ish in that clipped Chicago way), but the characters’ across-the-board opacity (and the minimalist characterization afforded to the diverse and generally fine cast) does little for the movie, especially when, eventually and inevitably, it turns into a this-time-it’s-semi-personal revenge story. Sometimes it seems like a case of details remaining out of the frame: on the Blu-ray, a “Creating Reality” featurette discusses backstory for the characters that the movie itself barely touches on, while “The Cyber Threat” is a clip-heavy insistence on the topic of the film’s authenticity. Globe-trotting and often ridiculous, Blackhat plays, at times, like a dour, withholding installment of Mission: Impossible.
Yet the movie has a visual electricity lacking from at least three-quarters of Hollywood thrillers, and Mann hasn’t lost his facility with moody, jolting action sequences. This is not a bad film so much as one unconcerned with making Mann’s pet obsessions over for a broad audience. Some of this may have to do with a star-power shortage; Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, and Will Smith have helped sell Mann’s vision to mainstream audiences over the years.
The Blackhat Blu-ray contains no deleted material, and it remains to be seen whether Mann will tinker further with another cut in the future, as seems to happen on about half of his films. But it seems entirely possible that, at this late stage in his career, Mann has made exactly the movie he had in his head.