Materially flawed but technically flawless
Mann returns after a lengthy year hiatus, having spent much of that time perfecting his latest effort – a glossy, suitably stylish globe-trotting action-thriller centred on cyberterrorism.There’s no doubt that the recent Sony scandal is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of real-world cyberterrorism examples, so 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. Unfortunately, whilst he occasionally comes frustratingly close to mastering this new technological sandbox, there’s still a surprising jarring quality to his latest effort, which is more obvious in some aspects than others.As a result it threatens to take you out of the experience just moments before a sequence of exquisite tension draws you back in. Perhaps the biggest oddity is Chris Hemsworth’s buff hacker protagonist, who is a walking cinematic cliché borne from the Hugh Jackman-from-Swordfish jazz-hacker mould. He's imbued by an even more hackneyed Robin Hood backstory which turns him into an irritatingly perfect hero in what could and should have been, naturally, a far more flawed anti-hero role. Hemsworth does largely break free of his Thor-esque mantle, and tries his best to embrace this different direction. However Mann does tend to paint his characters as types, and it takes a quality actor to flesh them out without much help from the script. The likes of Pacino and De Niro are perfect examples, but Mann’s been able to elicit striking results from the likes of Tom Cruise and Will Smith too, although their characters were considerably more interesting.
And that’s not to say that the archetypical style he repeats is all bad news. There’s a certain old-school familiarity to all of Mann’s works – more obviously evident the further back you go in his oeuvre – and the filmmaker is more than happy to have even his cyber-heroes spout dialogue as if they’re in Heat, Manhunter or Thief, gazing into the mirror soulfully and talking in platitudes which, somehow, Mann always manages to make sound so damn cool. 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.
Even Hemsworth's improbable programming ninja at least gets the Michael Mann makeover, graduating to the land of effortless cool.
Similarly counterpointed are the mechanics of technology and humanity within his narrative, as a suitably menacing criminal mastermind is machinating cataclysmic events of destruction across the globe, and Mann finds the ripple effect of damage is just as evidenced physically as it is emotionally, with the hunt also taking its toll on the motley incestuous melting pot task force seeking to find and end the attacks.
Certainly Blackhat has all the essential trademarks of a classic Mann effort – from the cinematography, to the editing, to the music, to the dialogue. In many ways it’s as much a mood effort as it is interested in expounding a traditional narrative; it’s as much about style as it is about substance – and it’s in this balance that Mann has always found his true masterpieces. Here, a few missteps have made the flaws perhaps more obvious than fans would have hoped for, and the increasing preposterousness of the story – even when swallowed with your “Mann hat” on – doesn’t sit as well as it should, 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.
To date, only one or two filmmakers have even come close to fully energizing scenes of cyberterrorism and programming conflicts, and unfortunately Mann hasn’t earned himself a place amidst them with this contribution. Oddly, in retrospect, the concept probably works better when depicted with more innate simplicity. It may be counterintuitive to apply that to something so technologically-minded, but think back to the tense standoff in Clear and Present Danger, when Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan is trying to distract his opponent whilst he pulls incriminating information off his computer before all the files get deleted. Nowadays, and perhaps in particular in the post-Matrix age, computer warfare always has to be both alien and futuristic – think of the strange ‘puzzle’ in Skyfall – and whilst Mann largely manages to retain a sense of realism to his depiction here (reportedly the film has gone down well with IT security experts, whatever that’s worth), he still trades in the contrived and complex in favour over simple strokes of chess-playing tension.
Still trading in the contrived and complex in preference to tense simplicity, Blackhat is still a Mann film, through and through.
Ultimately, however, Blackhat 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 which may well be flawed and far from perfect, but is also certainly deserving of the opportunity to win you over. Against all odds.
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