Despite the long, circuitous cycle times of the movie business a picture can occasionally appear in theatres just as serendipitous real-life events coincide in an almost eerie fashion. Michael Mann’s new cyber-thriller Blackhat commenced principal photography 18 months ago and finally infiltrated multiplexes in the wake of the Sony Hacking scandal, and even the past few weeks since its US debut have seen a storm of revelations around secret bank thefts and further treacherous NSA disclosures. Unfortunately Blackhat’s contemporary cache hasn’t gained traction with the cultural gatekeepers or mostly bemused audiences, as a miniscule box office haul has been mirrored with criminal critical antipathy. But if you hunt around there are a few lone voices in the digital wilderness who have praised the film for its abstract engineering, and celebrated the technological techniques expertly wielded by one of the great visual practitioners of our time. Full disclosure – Michael Mann is one of my all time favorite filmmakers, I adore his idiosyncratic world of stoic, perfectionist professionals blurring the moral and social lines of the law, with his exquisite attention to detail when it comes to the flora and fauna of his covert worlds – the gadgets, the argot, the vehicles, weapons and procedures. All these elements have been programmed into the processing DNA of this near occult new portfolio, but I can see why it hasn’t quite gripped the popular imagination.
Opening with a potentially clichéd visual abrogation we drift from orbit down to terra firma, as a microscopic lens penetrates the inner entrails of the global mainframe, whizzing through pulsing fiber optic cables before finding purchase in some clandestine algorithmic territory – isn’t this a condensation of the computerized infrastructure landscape that every 1990’s cyber thriller repeated ad nauseam? Yet somehow in Mann’s hands this becomes a powerful abstract metaphor for our globalized world, as a secret transgressor overclocks a Chinese nuclear power station with devastating effect. State security professional Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is instructed to investigate the breach, who quickly convinces his superiors to enlist the support of the US authorities due to their sharing of manufacturing designs which also pose a significant risk for America’s vulnerable power grid. After discovering that the RAT open source code used to conduct the attack (RAT being the acronym for Remote Access Tool) was written by him and his MIT roommate Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) Chen advises that only his friend has the necessary skills and insight to source the interloper, with one small complication – he is serving a thirteen year stretch for electronic criminal transgressions of his own. A pardon is offered and the global chase begins, with Chen’s sister in tow (Tang Wei, notoriously seen in Lust, Caution) supplying the atypical Mann romantic interlude.
This is not a film for the passive cinema-goer as it almost willfully rejects the standard mainframe of movie thriller semantics, opting instead for a stripped down, austere chase narrative that darts deftly from LA to the Asian theatre, a dizzying travelogue of pungent international locations, of state of the art technological techniques that may prove impenetrable to some. Fans of the Mann however will be wallowing in hog-heaven as it plays as a greatest hits package of the auteurs ascetic obsessions – process and perfectionism, a shadow play of vaporous terrorism and government guile, an integrated world ripe with corrupted transgressions. In that light I enjoyed this immensely although it takes its time to get cracking, slowly building a design that burns brightly with the verisimilitude of Mann’s extraordinary focus on detail, and an almost obtuse disregard for those standard tropes of the standardized three act structure and climactic conclusion where all questions are answered. Hand-held, furtive and intrusive camerawork with an emphasis on long-held facial close-ups invites us to invest in the characters internal processing, dwarfed figurines set against impersonal architecture, enmeshed in a constant barrage of information amalgamated in the humid urban environment.
I realize I constantly harp on about the visual qualities of a movie, sometimes at the hindrance of other crucial elements in cinematic storytelling but there is no way around this – this movie is absolutely stunning, no-one shoots more breath-taking urban helicopter vistas than Mann and his embrace of the new digital possibilities are delicious, his camerawork harnessing jewels of light scattered like precious stones against a black velvet backdrop. You can simply curl up and let the images flood over your ocular CPU, and on that front alone I’ll probably be making a second technical appraisal visit. It’s also very economic with the action sequences but when they arrive they are energetic and electrifying, mastering cause and effect within the cinematic space, the international urban environment infected with metaphors of seeing and observation from advertising billboards to glittering stock market logarithms, the globalized economy reduced to an intangible confection of zeros and ones.
The weak link in the key chain however is Hemsworth. Although his rather stodgy characterization deepens as the plot accelerates (and it’s never fully convincing that this information era impresario is also a master of close quarter combat despite his stretch in the big-house) he simply doesn’t have the screen caliber of Will Graham or Vincent Hanna in the pantheon of Mann’s acetic archetypes, and the furtive romance with Wei (with strong echoes of the Gong Li & Colin Farrell’s doomed tryst in Miami Vice) doesn’t catch fire. As usual a new film from a celebrated auteur has resulted in a few compelling career retrospectives and revisits of their strongest work, alongside the recent 4K Blu-Ray restoration of Thief which is an absolutely essential score. In any case for us acolytes its wonderful to have another addition to the Michael Mann manifesto, another text to discuss, deconstruct and interrogate in comparison to his other films, another abstract addendum of its age;