Review: Blackhat (2015)

The release of the cyber-thriller Blackhat is an opportunity to reflect on the way that director Michael Mann continues his engagement with genre thrills. Genre filmmaking remains the main mode of American filmmaking, as it has since the classical Hollywood era. But audience relationships to particular genre tropes change, even as a director like Mann remains steadfastly interested in the same things he was interested in 30 years ago: stoic heroes living by a code, nighttime cityscapes and minimalist scores. Blackhat then is a treat for a certain kind of cinephile, idiosyncratically combining the visual pleasures of art house formalism with adrenaline fueled crime thrills.

Blackhat marks Mann’s move away from American-set tales, and expands his filmmaking palette into a globalized Internet thriller. The film begins with a fascinating opening shot, as the camera moves from an orbital view of the earth, showing electronic connections mapped across the globe like the planet’s central nervous system, and descends to the level of the very circuits and microchips making those connections possible. For Mann—a director always attentive to the surfaces of things—the “inside” of the computer is far from abstract, but rather a part of our material world. These particular electronic signals trigger a meltdown in a Chinese nuclear power plant; subsequently, these digital tools are used to manipulate soy futures in Chicago. When a Chinese cyber-terrorism expert (Wang Leehom) recognizes that the code used in both intrusions was written by his former college roommate at MIT, now serving a 15 year prison sentence for cyber crimes, he convinces the FBI that his hacker friend is their only hope in finding the perpetrator before he or she strikes again. Thus, hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) agrees to aid the Chinese and American governments in hunting down the “blackhat” hacker who is using his code in exchange for his sentence being commuted if he is successful.

In a few short scenes, Hathaway’s motivations are outlined and the film takes the viewer on a trip to Los Angeles and then to Hong Kong, where it really hits its stride. Hathaway is a classic Michael Mann-hero: a damaged male psyche who lives by his own code, always the consummate professional. The incongruity of the physically imposing Hemsworth as a hacker is explained in an early scene when Hathaway explains that while in prison he was doing his own time, “not the system’s.” Hathaway is introduced exercising his mind and body by doing inverted push ups and reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Such a visual merging of the intellectual and the physical sums up Mann’s preoccupations quite well.

Each of Mann’s films are to some extent interested in surfaces and representation and the way that in cinema, visual information and a simple (some might say cliché) plot and dialogue can communicate something deeper. Characters project these surfaces to others through the stances they adopt and the codes they uphold; in Mann’s films this is usually a posture of professionalism and stoicism that masks insecurities or past wounds, as in a film like Heat. For Michael Mann, the Internet is figured, appropriately, as a world of light (electricity) and shadow, the depths and dangers lurking beneath the surface world of codes (literally) and visual information.

Mann’s film style is contrary to most of the marks of contemporary genre filmmaking. His action scenes are robust, at times overly stylized. A gunfight in a Kowloon port shakes the theatre with its echoing gunshots. The gunfight’s visual grammar in such a setting reminded me of the genre pleasures of Hong Kong maestro, Johnnie To. The end fight takes place during a Javan ceremony in Jakarta, the primary figures cast against a crowd of red-robed celebrants who hardly react to the initial acts of violence until there is collateral damage. But Mann’s films aren’t non-stop action. The film pauses on faces and creates spaces of silence that are more interested in allowing the audience to contemplate the characters in their contemplation. Too amped up for the art house crowd, but too deliberately paced for the mainstream action set, Blackhat seems calculated primarily to please Mann himself and his fans. This isn't a charge of self-indulgence, but rather the sign of a filmmaker working to deepen rather than broaden his own filmic interests.

And what of the film’s thematic conclusions? Blackhat is not a damning critique of either Chinese censorship or American spying. Rather, it seems to me that Mann’s formal and generic conventions fit well into this thoroughly post-Snowden cyberthriller. Blackhat is distrustful of governments. The Chinese are shown to be venial and self-serving as well the Americans, who are willing to endanger their people rather than share sensitive info with the Chinese. This is why I think genre, in this case the Western, is a lens through which to view this film, and not just because the title contains a nice double-meaning if you do so. In the end, the only kind of action that has any meaning for the heroes in this film is personal revenge. This is a lawless film, where the forces of order try to restrain evil, but the only person who can do anything is the cowboy/hacker who is free from the restrictions of civilization.

Blackhat must have been a challenge for a studio to market, which explains why it was dumped in early January, in want of an audience. But for those who have been on Mann’s wavelength for a long time, Blackhat is like a breathe of fresh air in a multiplex crammed with self-important Oscar-bait and franchise fair.

Blackhat (USA, 2014)

8 out of 10

Directed by Michael Mann; written by Morgan Davis Foehl; starring Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis.