Materially and technically flawed
Blackhat Film Review
Mann returns after a hefty 6 year hiatus, having spent much of that time perfecting his latest effort – a glossy, suitably stylish globe-trotting action-thriller centred on his latest, and fairly prescient, theme du jour, cyberterrorism.Blackhat is, on the one hand, surprisingly relevant, and yet its feel is old-school through and through, which is both a compliment and a veiled criticism. In one respect, Mann’s attempt to reveal the inner workings of more malevolent ‘black hat’ programmers gives him the opportunity to dissect something new and high-tech, but at the same time the manner in which he does so is quintessential to the filmmaker – who has previously put career cops and career criminals under close scrutiny in numerous cinematic masterpieces – and whose fusion of the two universes is more jarring and unpolished than you might have hoped for, despite the slick veneer. Perhaps the biggest oddity is Chris Hemsworth’s buff hacker/prison gladiator protagonist. Hemsworth does, thankfully, largely break free of his Thor-esque mantle, and tries his best to embrace this different direction, but Mann also tends to paint his characters as types, and it takes a quality actor to flesh them out without any ostensible help from a script that demands he spout dialogue as if in Heat, or Manhunter, or Thief which, here, feels trite and outright clichéd.Blackhat has all the essential trademarks of a Mann film – the cinematography, editing, music and dialogue. And those military-precision shootouts. In many ways it’s also as much a mood effort as it is interested in expounding a traditional narrative; as much about style as substance – and it’s in this balance that Mann has always found his masterpieces. Here, a few missteps highlight the flaws, but it’s still a Mann film, through and through. Was it an ambitious subject for him to tackle? Sure, but you can see why he was interested in it – the topic at once appeals to his interest in the more technical aspects of crime, whilst providing him with an opportunity to look at the latest technology of crime – even if it also presents him with arguably his most challenging mission yet, hopping from Hong Kong to Chicago to Jakarta as the attacks cross borders and international boundaries without hesitation. It’s an against-all-odds scenario, fusing old with new and finding nostalgic classic thriller undercurrents churning beneath the slick high-tech veneer. Most of the time it works. Occasionally it doesn’t.
Picture QualityUniversal’s Region Free UK Blu-ray release of Blackhat hits the deck with a strong but flawed 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation in the original theatrical aspect ratio – and Mann’s preferred aspect ratio – of 2.4:1 widescreen. Detail is oftentimes impressive, with some depth and texture to the piece that is showcased both in some of the close-ups and the longer shots. A number of different cameras were clearly utilised for the piece, and the more docu/handheld-style shots certainly don’t look as consistent as the rest of the footage (which has been a style/distraction in most of Mann’s post-2002 work).
Ignoring the inconsistencies offered up by the director’s style, this is a largely impressive video presentation.
The colour scheme seems widely muted, to suit the tone of the piece, with blue and green hues more prevalent, and brighter, more vibrant tones seldom striking out. The locations do provide highlights, with some of the backdrops looking truly stunning, although conversely the night sequences are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with signs of crush, banding and loss of shadow detail. It’s typically Mann – much of what we see here is what we’ve been used to for the best part of 15 years – but there is some hesitation with fully excusing the problems, particularly when they were scarcely an issue in his films before that.
Sound QualityThere’s no doubt that Blackhat’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a typically – and expectedly – exciting aural effort from Mann, delivering thunderous shootout sequences which offer penetratingly real gunshot sounds like only Mann can deliver, and even a few explosions into the mix to further engage the LFE undercurrent. It’s got presence and precision, utilising the full force and expanse of the surround array. The score too is engulfing and thematic and, for the majority of the proceedings, envelopes the material to give it a more fluid, cohesive feel (although don’t ask supposed score composer Harry Gregson Williams about it because, despite his name being on the credits, he’s publically criticised Mann for removing all of his work from the final product). Really, however, there’s only one reservation about the track. Unfortunately it’s a big one: the dialogue.
Another master filmmaker whose audio ‘preferences’ and chosen ‘style’ appears designed to confuse, frustrate and disengage audiences?
Whether the problems started with the quality of the original dialogue recorders, or the standard of the ADR needed, it ultimately ends with how everything is balanced out in post-production, and Mann’s now well-known hearing problems (c.f. the Public Enemies sound mix) appear to now not only reflect an audio track which appears to only be designed to sound good to him but also unbalanced dialogue which he clearly doesn’t care about enough for it to be necessary to even hear. This isn’t even an Interstellar-like choice. This is a film where entire scenes can take you out of the movie as the dialogue recorded ‘live’ and in ADR is so unbalanced that you’ll actually find yourself reaching for the remote. Repeatedly. And in the same scene. There’s one early prison conversation where dialogue sounds muffled when a character is speaking with his back to you, and then more pronounced when you’re looking at him; where Hemsworth’s words actually drop out – mid-sentence. Almost every film requires ADR of some sorts to supplant / replace the on-set dialogue. But I’ve never come across any film with dialogue as unbalanced as this. It’s almost like an old classic which has had new footage found 30 years later, and they managed to restore the video but couldn’t polish the dialogue up to blend into the rest of the track, so the new footage stands out more because of that than because it’s visually incongruous.
After all this, it’s probably worth emphasising that it doesn’t ruin the movie. It just threatens to take you out of the movie. Or, at the very least, wonder what the hell went wrong.
ExtrasA trio of quarter-hour Featurettes don't really do a great deal to embellish the movie.
Blackhat Blu-ray VerdictBlackhat is likely to be a polarising experience – not just for audiences, with some loving it and some hating it, but for individuals at odds with themselves over what they loved and what they hated. Largely, though, the former outweighs the latter, with Mann’s juxtaposition of old and new, technology and humanity, and style and substance, winning out for the most part, and providing a frequently tense, fitfully fervent, and satisfyingly atmospheric effort.
It may be flawed, but is also deserving of the opportunity to win you over. Against all odds.
The accompanying Region Free UK Blu-ray boasts largely impressive video and mostly impressive audio which is fatally flawed by some truly terrible dialogue balancing that puts Interstellar to shame. The extras might be a bit thin on the ground but that’s the least of your problems with this hit-and-miss release. Give it a test run first.
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