“You are no longer in control…”
There are times when a movie ends and you wish that a different director’s name would appear in the credits. Not in the sense that you wish somebody else had made it, but in the way that it’s hard to fathom how this particular filmmaker made something so dreadful. And yet, in an inverted kind of way, the film in question usually wreaks of a specific kind of terribleness that can only become a reality in the hands of a talented craftsman; conventional bad movies can simply be uninteresting or bland, but when artists of merit make something abnormally awful, it becomes a fascinating study into why the style yielded such unfavorable results. So has become the case with this weekend’s “Blackhat,” a self-regarded cyber-thriller cultivated by premier moviemaker, Michael Mann. It collects all of the expectant Mann staples and definitely evidences his signature style, but it all coalesces into a worthless, uninteresting thriller that almost demands audiences to be bored with it. Overplotted and about as believable as a “Die Hard” film, despite the timeliness of its premise, Mann has officially retired his traditional, energetic style to a format far more sluggish and infuriating; with two strikes before this, “Blackhat” now makes three, but worse yet, it’s surely the worst film I’ve ever seen directed by him.
Set in the high tech world of cyberspace, leaning closer to the keyboard typing malfeasance of “Live Free or Die Hard” rather than “Skyfall,” a cyber-terrorist attack triggers a near-meltdown at a Chinese power plant mirroring recent infiltrations that have happened on American soil. In an attempt to counter the unknown blackhat – a hacker who uses his abilities to cause harm rather than an IBM tech assistant who would be candidly referred to as a whitehat – the Chinese and American governments decide to team up. However, the Chinese operative recognizes pieces of the terrorist code as one written by his MIT roommate, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a convicted criminal currently serving a fifteen-year sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. Convinced Hathaway is the one man who can track down the blackhat, he convinces the Americans to furlough Hathaway in exchange for discovering the terrorist’s identity, which consequently leads them on a chase through Chicago, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Jakarta.
So from the getgo, the narrative has little attraction to it and even its central casting of Chris Hemsworth is a bit of general shrug unless you’re itching to see him out of his Thor attire (or maybe with even less clothes on because there’s that too), but after the hacking debacle at Sony, there is an interesting prevalence to the concept of cyber-terrorism. Like I wrote about in my Selma review, studios choose release dates for a number of reasons, but its hard to refute a stinging connection when art so strongly imitates life, or vice versa. Unfortunately, the cyber focus incrementally dissolves into more standard affairs with course-correcting shootouts and action set pieces that feel sewn into the plot without any care to tidy up the seams. Granted, this is the stuff that Mann usually manages with aplomb, though observing somebody tap out the hot keys that will construct the cyber-terror doesn’t exactly scream drama, but based on a script that seems to pride itself with how much jumbled hacker jargon it can pack in, seeing how “Blackhat” ultimately progresses feels cheap and uninspired.
The script is credited to a first time writer named Morgan Davis Foehl, but apparently Foehl’s spec script was reworked so heavily by Michael Mann that the director scrapped with the WGA to earn a writer’s credit that was unfortunately never approved. To go to such lengths, for me, indicates that either Mann was quite passionate about the work he had done on the script and didn’t want that aspect to go unseen, or he had done enough hard and tedious work that he believed the writer’s credit would allow him to sleep better at night. Either way, the credit is most likely warranted, but regardless of which scenario is true, it doesn’t make the script any better. This is a dull, stupid, and drudgingly condescending script. When its not firing off hacker slang, or finding a wrap around way to have our main characters globe trot to a different location, it’s searching desperately for some semblance of a full plot but only manages to tape together fragments into an everlasting 135 minutes with no gratifying outcome. And while avoiding the happy ending is regular in Mann’s work, his methods of getting us there make a strong case that the filmmaker is steadily letting his talent slip away.
For as embedded into the film world as it is now, a decade ago, digital filmmaking was still an untested medium. While many understood that the art form was on the precipice of a giant swap in formats, some directors made the transfer from 35mm to film before many. David Fincher is credited with making the jump artfully and most successfully, championing the medium heavily since, but Michael Mann probably embraced this wave the earliest and has since married himself to it as well. In 2004, Mann’s first dealing with digital came in the form of “Collateral,” where he made a conscious effort to utilize the look of digital video instead of trying to mask it as film. With years separating this work with a film like “Zodiac” which demonstrated the incredible potential that digital filmmaking possessed, the whiplash element of “Collateral’s” DV look was unlike anything else at the time, or anything else Mann had ever produced. The streaking, kinetic energy that Mann extracted from the “Collateral” script was given a heightened sense of immediacy as a result of the almost amateurish HD video look, and given the film’s close quarters, mano a mano power play theme at hand, it electrified the thriller with an intensity that Mann has been striving to recreate since. It also gave the LA setting a tinge that feels strangely more realistic than other LA set features – an authentic vibe that until the recent “Nightcrawler” was wholly singular. But Mann’s classic 90’s films like “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat,” and “The Insider,” as well “Ali” in the early 2000’s, were all shot on glorious 35mm, and “Collateral” implemented this radical change into Mann’s visual aesthetic that has strongly influenced his most recent films, but sadly in a detrimental way.
“Miami Vice” and “Public Enemies” piggybacked on “Collateral’s” style, but failed to incorporate it in a sensible way. “Miami Vice” looked to mix the DV scan with 35mm and the result was a jarring, noticeable, and very obtrusive blend of appearances that greatly hindered the work it was capturing. “Public Enemies,” as Mann’s greatest gamble and experiment yet, omitted 35mm entirely and worked strictly with digital video. This became a failure as well transforming the gritty period piece Mann was looking to make into a cheap-looking, seemingly unfinalized and distractingly imperfect feature that might as well have had a college thesis film price tag. “Blackhat,” in a form of retread, revisits the “Miami Vice” mix but this time with DV and digital anamorphic – forever the experimenter. “Blackhat” is again a jarring mess like “Miami Vice” as it cross cuts within the same scene obstructing exchanges of dialogue and coherency within action sequences. It’s unsettling, frustrating, and, at times, makes the film infuriatingly unwatchable. The DV is most used when Mann implements close ups (similar to how Mann photographed his actors so closely in “Public Enemies”), and Mann has a strange affinity for locking tightly onto an actor’s face when they are moving and the DV does not handle motion well. Full moments of the production look schlocky and unprofessional, almost like they went into reshoots and decided to collect whatever footage they didn’t have with DV in hopes that audiences wouldn’t notice. The polish is suddenly infused with motion blur and there is no rhyme or reason to why Mann is enforcing this collision. There are four credited editors on this film and it comes across like they all worked in different rooms and were given some random assemblage of footage and tried to knit something together separately and then together. It’s an untamable visual cluster, but while it matches the incomprehensible motivations and happenings of the plot, I doubt that was the intention.
From just the opening few minutes of “Blackhat,” I started to feel tremors of a deep rooted fear that I might strongly dislike where this movie was going to advance throughout its duration. The preface is loaded with so many zooms in and out of computer wiring, trying desperately to illustrate the lengthy path that a signal takes from point A to point B and that can, within milliseconds, execute a disastrous cyber-terrorist plot. It recalls the hasty hacker thrillers of the 90’s that thought they could make typing on a keyboard interesting; Dominic Sena’s “Swordfish” was the first film that came to mind while watching “Blackhat,” and you’ll know that that is far from a compliment, but at least “Swordfish” had unabashedly absurd action sequences, John Travolta donning a mullet and a topless Halle Berry. “Blackhat” has no such hammy and eye-catching distractions and plays itself super straight with a stoic Chris Hemsworth doing the film no favors failing to drop his heroic accent, adding no identifiable nuance to a blank template character, and embodying the strangest hacker character I’ve ever seen developed on screen. He’s like if Matthew Broderick from “WarGames” happened to be trained by Jason Bourne; he can hack into the NSA interface, but is also crazily adept in a close quarters fist fight, evasive in a shootout, and ultimately racks up a body count that almost hits double digits, singlehandedly taking out entourages of baddies and using casual items like a phone book as makeshift Kevlar and a screwdriver as a brutal murder weapon. This kind of character only exists in the movies, but if Hemsworth was able to be believed in the role, or had any chemistry with his co-stars which includes famed Chinese actor Leehom Wang, Viola Davis, and former Mann collaborators John Ortiz and Ritchie Coster, the character would have a shot at being forgivable. He even shares a romance with a tag-along female counterpart played by Wei Tang and it’s one of the most inorganic, contrived, and slapdash romances orchestrated into a film I’ve ever seen; how the film eventually becomes just about the two of them is yet another reason why the script is so intolerable.
“Blackhat” is an uncharacteristically and impersonally insufferable film from one of the most paramount American filmmakers who up until ten years ago delivered singular, highly influential and wonderfully exciting films of all types. After his changeover to DV-fronted filmmaking, his output has suffered narratively as well as visually. While “Miami Vice” and “Public Enemies” might have some merits worth fighting for, and they are arguably more about Mann’s misdirection than lack thereof, “Blackhat” is one of the finest examples of a director’s methods and stylings working totally and irrefutably against the work at hand. Nothing in this film really works, sans one mildly exciting action sequence midway through, but it’s merely a flicker of the Michael Mann that brought us the greatest film about Los Angeles ever made.
Twenty minutes in, I couldn’t wait for “Blackhat” to end and by the time the climax rolled around, I forgot how the whole thing started. And worse yet, despite how unbearable “Blackhat” is for practically the entirety of its runtime, the saddest moment came at the top of the ending credits when the following words were displayed: “Directed by Michael Mann.” After all of that, I wish it had been anybody else’s name on screen but Mann’s. He’s no longer in control.
Review by Mike Murphy