Film Review: Blackhat

on January 15, 2015, 12:00pm

Michael Roffman (MR): Blackhat isn’t interested in being a Michael Mann film. Instead, it’s a serviceable crime thriller with the confused aspirations of wanting to be the next Jason Bourne vehicle. It’s sleek, it’s sexy, yet it’s incredibly hollow. Thor’s Chris Hemsworth stars as ultimate hunk Nicholas Hathaway, a furloughed convict who’s working with the Americans and the Chinese to track down a nefarious hacker who’s operating like a modern day Bond villain.

The problem is that the film’s lead, its premise, and its supporting cast clash heavily with Mann’s trademark verisimilitude. The veteran filmmaker has made a career on crafting gritty, realistic crime dramas with tangible characters, and Blackhat may be his grandest departure yet. Simply put, Hathaway is a superhero — no different than Hemsworth’s regular 9-5 over at Marvel. He’s not only a demigod at the computer, but also in hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, and medicine.

Which would be fine if that was his character. But Hathaway isn’t bred like Bourne or carved from years of training like Bond. Mann wants us to believe he’s another one of his Average Joes, no different than his underdog leads in Thief, Manhunter, or Heat. “I conceived of Hathaway as a guy from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago,” Mann explained to Collider this week. That’s great, Michael, but you wound up designing a cyborg.

One that’s too numb, too removed, and too clean to be your run-of-the-mill professional. As such, there’s no heart to be torn out of Blackhat, no matter how powerful the score is or how sweeping and majestic the visuals may be. What are your thoughts, Justin?

(Read: Dissected + Ranking: Michael Mann)

Justin Gerber (JG): I agree with your assessment of Hemsworth’s Hathaway coming off as superhuman as opposed to a relatable, believable, genius hacker. I’m not suggesting that Hemsworth doesn’t have talent, but he is as miscast as I feared he would be when those trailers were released last year. Hathaway is cold and calculating like so many of Mann’s previous protagonists, but the difference is that those earlier characters didn’t dominate. There is not one situation Hathaway gets himself into in Blackhat that I didn’t believe he could get out of. Can we say that about any other leads in a Michael Mann film?

The film’s love story, usually so strong in Mann’s other works, is shoehorned in. Wei Tang’s role as Lien Chen exists solely to bat eyes and inevitably fall in love with Hathaway in what feels like two days. Chen is included in the task at hand due to her computer expertise but this is made moot the moment she sees Hathaway. This unbelievable and forced relationship is highlighted during the last third of the film that mostly concentrates on the duo, hampering the climax of the film.

Another issue I had with the film is the script. First-timer Morgan Davis Foehl attempts to make computer hacking sexy in a way that hasn’t been attempted since Hackers and interesting in a way that hasn’t been attempted since The Net. Neither of those movies holds up particularly well, but the point is that Blackhat feels like a film from a different era, and not in a cool, retro way (ex. Drive or last year’s The Guest). The technobabble is dull, and most of the scenes dealing with the “ones and zeros” of computer codes feel like something out of CSI: Jakarta. It should be noted that writer Foehl’s two previous film credits were as an assistant editor on the Adam Sandler films Click and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Despite what these initial outpourings may lead one to believe, the movie isn’t a complete disaster by any means. Mike, what positives did you find in Mann’s first film in six years?

MR: To be fair, the “technobabble” is the least of Blackhat’s problems. It’s actually one of the film’s few strengths, thanks to Mann’s exhaustive research of the culture. Read enough interviews and you’ll quickly learn that the director stuck to his principles by working with professionals in the field, specifically top heads in Washington, D.C. and notorious code writers. The problem is in the execution, in the way it hearkens back to Kevin Mack’s visual effects for Fight Club, what with all its microscopic journeys into the wiring and mainframes of each computer. As an opening shot, it was okay, but to use that as your source of tension … well, it’s not 1999 anymore.

While a few of Mann’s calling cards fail — the tragic love angle; the agreeable testosterone — he can still orchestrate a proper action scene. There are several in Blackhat, from the early morning raid in Hong Kong to the candlelit climax in Jakarta, that all bruise with realism. He also knows how to choose the most vivid shooting locations, capturing them without the regal prestige that Bond insists upon. This has been adopted by his predecessors, namely Paul Greengrass and even Christopher Nolan, so it’s assuring to see he hasn’t waned in that area. Still, it would have been nice to enjoy these locales with some legitimate travel companions.

(Read: Miami Vice: It’s Time You Returned to Television)

Another positive is the score. Now, there’s been some feathers ruffled recently by composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who called out Mann on Facebook recently for “slicing and dicing” his original works, concluding: “I can say nothing for certain except that I was not the author of most of what is now in the movie.” That’s nothing new, though; after all, Mann chopped the hell out of James Newton Howard’s score for Collateral, stringing it together with other compositions, and it proved worthy of the film. The same can be said here of Blackhat, which brilliantly pieces together Gregson-Williams’ works with those by Academy Award-winner Atticus Ross, who collaborated with his brother Leopold Ross and The Haxan Cloak.

There’s one scene where the marriage of music and visuals just about hits Mann’s branded sweet spot. It’s when Hathaway and Chen first share a bed together, telling stories for what seems like hours while staring off into oblivion. The scene is quite gorgeous and one of the film’s few sedative moments, but it whisks on by without much emotional effect because the film itself doesn’t earn this scene. That’s around the time when you know something’s wrong.

JG: Again, it’s all rather forced. When we see these love scenes in Manhunter or even Heat, we believe in the two characters and their mutual feelings towards one another. In Blackhat, it’s a case of “well, this scene has to go somewhere, so let’s just put it here!” I agree that the atmosphere created for the two characters is vintage Mann with his love for aqua-blue lighting, but lighting, cuts, and narration cannot create chemistry. But hey, “love at first sight” is a thing, right? Maybe I’m being too harsh.

Issues with composer’s scores are nothing new for the director. Mann took out Elliot Goldenthal’s climactic score in Heat and replaced it with Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters”, and it was the right choice. It isn’t that Goldenthal’s composition was bad; it just no longer fit the tone Mann wanted for his finale. Perhaps the same can be said for Gregson-Williams’ score, but looking at his resume it’s possible that it was just plain lacking in quality. In a twist, Moby’s cover of “New Dawn Fades” (which also features in Heat) plays during the final scenes in The Equalizer, the last film Gregson-Williams wrote the score for. It’s like I always say, “If the score’s a bore, you must ignore.”

My positive notices are regretfully attached to negatives. The ensemble features Viola Davis and John Ortiz, but the latter is used far too sparingly. Ortiz, so good in Mann’s Public Enemies and Luck (as well as Silver Linings Playbook), is simply the voice on the other end of the line from multiple time zones away, admonishing the team for behaving badly and nothing more. At least Davis is given a good deal more to do as Hathaway’s American handler, although she is strangely saddled with the laziest 9/11 storyline since 2010’s Remember Me.

From a visual standpoint, I can applaud Mann’s decision to go fully digital, which is something I couldn’t say about his use of the technology in Public Enemies. The look of the film in daylight or late night, lit by festival candlelight or natural light, is gorgeous, an adjective long associated with a Michael Mann film. That’s what frustrates me the most, because he still has it in him. Mann hasn’t lost his eye for filmmaking, but with Blackhat it appears he’s lost his voice.

(Read: The 50 Most Anticipated Films of 2015)

MR: It’s alarming. This is fairly virgin territory for Mann. Say what you will about his last two films — 2006’s Miami Vice and 2009’s Public Enemies — but they both knew how to sting you. In other words, you walked away from either production feeling something. There’s nothing that resonates within Blackhat, not Hathaway’s questionable fate, his relationship to Chen, nor even the fear of cyberterrorism, a topic that Mann’s been quite explicit and excited about whilst promoting the film. These are pretty telling voids, however, that indicate there’s certainly a disconnect between the filmmaker and his audience. Whether he mends the bridge with his next project only time will tell.

Yet that’s what really hurts, right? Because odds are we likely won’t see another venture from Mann for another three to four years. The Midwestern scholar will undoubtedly disappear into the stacks once again to study for a few semesters, resurfacing only when he’s found the story he wants to tell. That’s a process he shouldn’t change; grievances aside, there’s still an erudite wash to Blackhat that’s quite impressive. What would benefit his studies is revisiting whatever notes he scribbled long ago that inspired him to craft strong characters, timeless drama, and divine revelations. Otherwise, what’s the point?


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