BLACKHAT * * * 1 / 2
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Holt McCallany and Viola Davis. Screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl. Directed by Michael Mann.
Michael Mann’s Blackhat is a glorious absurdity. By far the most playful film we’ve seen from a director never highly regarded for his sense of humor, it is poorly written, indifferently acted and yet somehow the sum total is such a deranged, half-kidding symphony of color, movement and sheer cinematic muscle that I spent most of the running time in a state of wonderment, trying to pick my jaw up off the floor.
Even during its opening sequence I was audibly gee-gawing, as we’re treated to a wave of malware snaking its way through fiber-optic cables and nestling into printed circuit boards before eventually causing a meltdown at a Chinese nuclear power plant. Mann shoots this all as a cosmic fireworks display a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that’s just the overture.
Pardon my paltry attempt to compress the plotty gobbledygook that goes on from here, as Chinese intelligence officials team up with the FBI to track the digital fingerprints left by a RAT (remote access tool) that looks awfully familiar to Inspector Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang.)
Turns out he wrote it himself with his old roommate, Hathaway, years ago back at MIT. These two seem to have had a falling out that isn’t much elaborated upon, but I assume it had something to do with Hathaway being a criminal hacker who was banging Chen’s sister.
Like most former MIT roommates, Hathaway is currently in prison and is played by Chris Hemsworth. (“I did the crime so I do the time. The time doesn’t do me.”) Mann leans into the ludicrousness of casting Thor as a computer genius by having him read Focualt whenever he’s not taking his shirt off and doing push-ups for no apparent reason. Hemsworth, who the entertainment press helpfully informed me actually had to learn how to type for the role, is slightly less than convincing here as a hacker, snarling most of his lines in a garbled Noo Yawk accent that comes and goes, but he looks awfully studly in front of a laptop.
Scored a short furlough to aid in the investigation, Hathaway immediately resumes boning his buddy’s sister, Lien (Lust Caution’s fearless Wei Tang, who can’t speak a word of English) on a globe-trotting adventure that really gets rolling once Hemsworth hacks the NSA and becomes an international fugitive. (Ed Snowden was a pussy.)
The degree to which we are supposed to take Blackhat seriously can probably be explained with a post-coital cuddle-session between Hemsworth and Tang, during which the former starts spilling about his abusive father and Mann abruptly turns down the volume, abandoning his character’s sob story in favor of positioning these two in more camera-friendly erotic poses. Shut up, whatever. Look cool.
I suppose if you put a gun to my head I could maybe figure out the rest of what’s going on in Blackhat, but I honestly didn’t care a lick. It’s a visual masterpiece, shot like no other film I have ever seen (except maybe Miami Vice) finding an ecstatic medium between blunt-force hi-def hand-held camera immediacy and painterly compositions, with street-level shootouts that are to fucking die for.
Mann and his cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh don’t bother trying to make digital look like film, instead they keep with the stubbornly forward-thinking director’s tradition of exploring this new format’s limitations for odd, grimy flourishes amid the smeary, night-light grandeur.
The central joke here (and it’s a very good one) is that the more our world revolves around ones and zeros being transmitted through the ether, the more vulnerable we are, and so Blackhat goes more low-tech, retro and Cro-Magnon as it wears on.
This is a film full of hard-drives and coded one upsmanship, yet the final battle is two dudes beating and stabbing the shit out of each other in the middle of the street with a Craftsman Tool Kit of sharpened screwdrivers and Home Depot claw-hammers. (Yes, Mann even gives Thor a hammer. I told you this movie was funny.)
Back when Ali came out, after that sublime, impressionistic opening sequence I suggested to a friend that Michael Mann might finally be done with straight narrative filmmaking. Years later, I still don’t think I was wrong. Movies like Miami Vice and Blackhat are astonishingly abstract, almost avant-garde works strung up on the clotheslines of terrible screenplays.
Blackhat is pure cinema.