A taut, cat-and-mouse tech thriller set in the aftermath of a fictional but plausible attack on a Chinese nuclear reactor, Michael Mann’s Blackhat is easily the most underrated movie of 2015. The January release of the film makes it easy to make such a declaration, but a combination of trailer that was far from compelling and its release in January, historically a graveyard for mediocre film projects (the exception being the critically-lauded American Sniper which became the second film in a week to become the “highest grossing January release ever” after the banal and predictable Taken 3) have all but condemned the film to obscurity. The film deserved better, but its release speaks to Hollywood’s tiring of Michael Mann’s shtick as much as the merits of the film itself.
Love it or hate it, Michael Mann has a shtick. His penchant for formulaic protagonists and an almost pathological adherence to the same major plot points have earned him both acclaim as a technically proficient and successful director and also, as Slate film critic Daniel Engber put it so eloquently, “Hollywood’s greatest hack.” In Engber’s view, the greatest feat of hacking in Blackhat isn’t accomplished at a computer terminal but rather behind the camera. Is Engber right? Well, yes, and I’m not going to argue that. That’s actually not an altogether bad thing.
The word “hack” has negative connotation but there is a bit more nuance to its use than is typically applied. The dictionary definition of a hack is “a writer or journalist producing dull, unoriginal work”. It’s impossible to discuss Mann’s work, even to laud him, without confronting the fact that it’s not terribly original. After all, being discussed is a director who literally made the same movie twice; 1989’s made-for-TV film LA Takedown amounted to little more than the rough draft for the full-length motion picture that was released as 1995’s Heat, a film that earned both critical acclaim and $70 million at the box office in the United States alone. Not content with the legacy of Miami Vice as one of the 1980s most entertaining television series Mann inspired himself to make a Miami Vice motion picture, set in 2006 and complete with a modern cover to Genesis’ “In the air tonight”, the musical backdrop to one of the television program’s most memorable scenes. The film hardly broke new ground or tied up loose ends, rather it was a cash-grab reboot of the series which ran from 1984-1990 which banked on appealing to nostalgia. Bank on nostaliga it did, grossing $63 million domestically (impressive but less than half of its reported $135 million runaway budget). If all Michael Mann seems to want to do is tell the same story over and over again, why do we keep letting him?
The answer is that even though Mann relies on a lot of the same tropes and tricks, it’s unfair to say he hasn’t matured as a filmmaker. Nowhere is that more evident than in Blackhat, a film that applies the “Mann filter” to the most ambitious story to date. Rather than chronicle the activities of a police department trying to catch drug runners and pimps or detail the “catch me if you can” story of a medium-time crook and the cops who want to nail him (a trope seen in 1981’s Thief, 1986’s Manhunter and, most famously, 1995’s Heat) Blackhat is the story of a grandiose world domination plot that spans the entire globe. In a lot of ways the complexity of the story shows development in the kinds of projects Mann wants to tackle and in others, Blackhat feels like branching too far out of his comfort zone makes it seem like he is in over his head.
Make no mistake; Blackhat is vintage Mann. All of his signatures are present from his gorgeous, helicopter-assisted establishing shots of the vibrant lights of a bustling metropolis cutting through the night sky to his use of a crescendo of synthesizer music to punctuate pauses in conversation, especially when the male protagonist first meets the love interest. The film is an ecstatic visual feast and every scene in the 148 minutes is integral to the plot even if every shot is not. No one sets a mood better than Mann who has mastered the art of using low-light filters and a lot of nighttime shots to make even a city as large as Los Angeles seem utterly abandoned and the characters in it utterly alone. Mann’s up to all of his old tricks and fans of his work will feel right at home in the mood he creates, a real feat if you consider how the backdrop shifts rapidly to cities all around the globe, a real departure from his conventional film which is usually encapsulated in one major city. As much as a lot of the film felt old and familiar, though, a lot felt new, and that wasn’t always a good thing.
Blackhat centers around a sudden cyber attack on a nuclear facility and the involvement of the one man who can bring the perpetrator to justice; played by “Thor” himself, Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway is in the physical condition of his life and up-to-date on all of the latest technological advancements despite spending years locked in a maximum security prison, a facility which doesn’t manage to stop him from using a smuggled cell phone to get up to hijinks like hacking into the prison’s commissary to pad the balances of himself and his friends. As adept a hacker as ever, Hathaway is also lethal in hand to hand combat and nearly indestructible which he demonstrates in scenes where he fights off several armed thugs in a Chinese restaurant or survives the extreme heat of the control room in the damaged nuclear reactor while everyone else is succumbing to heat stroke. This is familiar fare for Hemsworth who is used to portraying the omnipotent, handsome lead in Hollywood movies who can shrug off bullets and keep his hair perfectly coiffed. It’s unfamiliar ground for Mann, though, a director who is used to keeping the odds more heavily stacked against the protagonist. The real threat to Hathaway in Blackhat is uncertainty and the knowledge that if he fails to bring the perpetrator to justice, his chances of getting his prison sentence commuted vanish.
It’s apparent that Mann is in unfamiliar territory with the story arc of the character and Hathaway is treated differently than almost any Mann film protagonist ever. Two of the best Mann protagonists are undoubtedly Collateral’s Vincent played by Tom Cruise and Heat‘s Neil McCauley played by Robert DeNiro (though Mann borrowed the name “Vincent” from Pacino’s Heat character, Detective Vincent Hanna; he borrows from himself quite a bit). Part of what made those characters so compelling was the dispassionate way Mann told the story from the side of the criminal and how his refusal to condemn those characters cloaked them in a kind of moral ambiguity. Mann went even farther, cloaking them in a costume that personified the moral grey area quite literally. The characters in both Heat and Collateral wear an identical grey suit in a not-so-subtle blurring of the line between black and white, good and evil.
No such nuance exists in Blackhat’s Hathaway who spends the entire film clad in clean, pastel shirts and khakis that make him look more like a cashier at Banana Republic than a convicted computer hacker doing hard time in a super max when he’s not getting out on furlough to engage in hand-to-hand combat with thugs and foil global terrorism plots.
Speaking of the terrorism plot, it’s a much more ambitious premise than Mann’s used to tackling and feels more like it should have been left up to James Bond to thwart, not an MIT dropout and his college roommate. The sheer grandiosity of the plot that reveals itself slowly as the heroes chip away at its layers and try to get to its heart feels like an unwelcome departure from Mann’s usual fare. I was reminded of the movie Adaptation where Charlie Kauffman created a fictional twin brother to represent the desire to take the easy way out and make the boring, formulaic plot that Hollywood wanted. In a way, Michael Mann has discarded one predictable formula for another, and it looks unlikely that he’ll be rewarded at the box office for his efforts.
It’s not all “bad new”, though. As much as the film centers around the prototypical, indestructible Hollywood badass, the film’s love interest played by Wei Tang is a radical departure from Mann’s typical device of using the female love interest as an Achilles Heel. Wei Tang is Hathaway’s partner as well as lover and her involvement in the unraveling of the sinister plot serves to focus Hathaway and remind him that the stakes are incredibly high if he should fail. The bad guy gets away, he goes back to prison and to quote another character in the film, Wei Tang’s brother Chen played by Leehom Wang, “what kind of life would that be for her?” Not only is Wei the most three-dimensional female character Mann’s ever portrayed, this may be the first of Mann’s films that passes the Bechdel Test.
Blackhat’s biggest crime of all is its trailer. Audiences were turned off by a trailer that attempted to summarize an intricate plot but instead served to marginalize it. It got across the point that this was a movie about a “Blackhat hacker named Hathaway” but not that it’s not not the formulaic “hack the Gibson” movie that they’re expecting. The problem? It is kind of the formulaic “hack the Gibson” movie that they’re expecting, and there isn’t enough footage in the movie to disabuse people of that notion with a better trailer. As awkward as Mann felt with Hemsworth’s nigh-invincible Ubermensch hacker who can also kung fu fight he’s even less comfortable extolling the virtues of his own work in the trailer and ticket sales have suffered greatly with a disappointing $4 million opening weekend for a movie with a $100 million budget. Chris Hemsworth is a box office draw, but not in every context.
In a lot of ways, Hemsworth is even more of a liability than all that. He’s not believable as an MIT-educated computer hacker any more than he’s believable as someone who won’t spend the whole movie punching faces. Those who give the movie a chance beyond the trailer are treated to Hemsworth using the same look on his face to regard a difficult puzzle as he does his female costar; a look that comes off more bewildered than pensive. Instead of looking like he’s concentrating on divining the significance of a signal transmitter he finds in a potted plant he looks like a Chimpanzee examining an iPad for the first time. Hemsworth’s involvement in the film only seeks to give the film’s detractors more ammunition, and it doesn’t help that it sounds like he took American-accent elocution lessons from John Wayne. Mann gambled with Hemsworth’s box office cachet and lost.
All in all, Blackhat is a very enjoyable film. It’s hard to know whether Mann was thrown off course by a predictable Hollywood plot written by Morgan Davis Foehl or if he made it his own and gave it his thumbprint. What is clear is that this is a beautiful and carefully-crafted film. While long at 148 minutes, it’s also dense and engaging and doesn’t drag on like many films of similar lengths might. Whether you consider Mann being a hack a good thing or a bad one (It might be fairly obvious that I don’t mind if he only knows how to make one movie because I love that movie), Blackhat is one of the year’s best efforts so far and well worth the investment of your time. On a scale from 1-10, I give it a B-