Mann’s World: Blackhat

01/14/2015 12:36 PM |
Photo courtesy of Universal


Directed by Michael Mann
Opens January 16


In his new thriller Blackhat, Michael Mann has taken a gamble by asking: is the world ready for a techno-reboot of 48 Hrs., with the wisecracking Eddie Murphy figure replaced by a strapping, 21st century alpha male equally adept at fiddling with laptops, staving villains’ heads in, and making sweet, tender love? Time, and box office receipts, will tell, but he’s found an engaging figure to play said dreamboat in Chris Hemsworth, whose hacker bro Hathaway—in a slick opening passage—is sprung from prison by a small, reluctant FBI-Chinese coalition in order to assist in the pursuit of a faceless global terrorist with cloudy motives and an appetite for destruction. Hathaway’s re-immersion into the hacking game precipitates a gratuitously globetrotting game of cat and mouse.

A riff on the director’s classic solitary wolf (see: Thief, Heat, Collateral)—but with bigger, more frequently exposed pectorals—Hathaway is a Mann’s man who has a code, but can break them too. The Aussie actor imbues the role with a gruff charm and sardonic charisma to complement his imposing physical qualities. He’s one of the best things about this efficient, fast-paced film, which doesn’t overstay its welcome—even at a substantial, two-hours-plus running time.

That said, Blackhat registers mostly as minor Mann, even if it bears significant traces of the director’s stamp. There’s the crystalline digital cinematography—most notable in gorgeous helicopter shots of cityscapes where deep black backgrounds are slashed by vibrant neons—of which Mann has been a pioneering proponent since 2004’s Collateral. And, as in Miami Vice (2006), there’s a pleasingly multiracial supporting cast comprised of charismatic, attractive actors, though they’re afforded precious little to do. Viola Davis, a standout, gets some good lines, and shoots some hard stares, as a no-nonsense FBI operative. Mann’s po-faced way with matters of the heart is also in evidence, as per the hilariously brusque, orchestrally assisted segues into sentimentality when Hathaway stares into the eyes of his colleague-turned-lover, played with intensity by Lust, Caution’s Wei Tang. Her brother, a Chinese agent, also happens to be Hathaway’s ex-college BFF and hacking partner-in-crime, though this dramaturgical triangulation is not effectively exploited for emotional effect.

A further drawback is the absence of a genuinely engaging counterpoint to Hathaway (or, in layman’s terms: a proper bad guy). Perhaps this structuring absence is central to a broader point—that in our online, hack-sensitive era, nefarious conspiracies are so inherently nebulous, and their progenitors so interchangeable, that it’s hard to finger a sole baddie. Yet Blackhat only really sizzles in its handful of expertly choreographed, unremittingly brutal combat scenes, in which Stuart Dryburgh’s fluid, mobile cinematography forces us uncomfortably close to the action.

Even so, Mann, surprisingly, drops the ball on the final showdown, which combines an uncharacteristic spatial implausibility with a quite spectacularly offensive display of cultural insensitivity. All that remains after a strangely truncated coda is the sense we’re being prepped for a franchise: an odd sensation to feel when emerging from a film by Mann, whose work is traditionally so proudly and rigorously self-contained.