The last film of Michael Mann’s to get bad reviews prior to Blackhat, 2006’s Miami Vice, has been the subject of a critical reappraisal in recent years. Some have suggested that Vice was unfairly written-off at the time of release, and while I couldn’t say whether I agree or not, having only watched it the once, I do wonder whether a similar reviewing awaits this 2015 box office flop in the future. I’m not suggesting for one minute that either Blackhat or Miami Vice is up there with Mann’s best work (let’s say Thief, Heat and The Insider, for argument’s sake) but I do think the reviews that labelled Blackhat slow-paced and boring were somewhat wide of the mark, and far too dismissive of its obvious qualities. In fact I’ve seen a couple of well-reasoned arguments made by respected critics and writers who have included Blackhat in a list of their favourite films of 2015, and while I don’t think I’ll be going that far myself I can certainly see why it has its champions.
Mann’s worst received film to date, it stars Chris Hemsworth as a former ‘black hat’ computer hacker (i.e. someone who uses their abilities for malicious purposes) taken out of jail to help on a joint FBI / Chinese government mission; his job is to track down a clever, ruthless cyber-opponent, and a pan-Asian game of cat and mouse ensues. Essentially what we have here is an old-school thriller with some ultra-modern window dressing. The plot feels like it has been kicking around for decades, bringing uneasy bedfellows from the east and west together in order to take down a common foe; where once we might have seen America and Russia teaming up today we have the US pooling its resources with China. The tech stuff adds a modern gloss, but even that’s filmed in a resolutely old-fashioned style, with lines of green code stacking up on small monitors and data shown passing through digitally-rendered cables and circuit boards. The action sequences – typically for Mann – are slow by today’s standards, but they’re as loud and as powerfully-rendered as ever. When the gunfire subsides the close combat also seems defiantly sluggish in an age where Bond, Hunt and Bourne leap from roof to roof and trade blows with their enemies at a fast and furious pace. Blackhat‘s hand-to-hand fighting is violent, though, and it’s as brutally swift as it is realistic, save for one scene in which Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway beats up three turn-taking henchmen in a restaurant, which could have been lifted straight from a late ’80s Steven Seagal movie.
Some of Mann’s slickly-delivered tropes – the fascination with skyscrapers at night, the shots of choppers and sleek private jets leaving or arriving in cities – have gradually become old hat, too, but they’re still as aesthetically-pleasing as they ever were. Perhaps I was in the right mood, but I enjoyed all of this, and I feel like it’s still a pleasure to see this auteur’s signature moves and style, even if the character types and plot points are becoming a little wearisome. Hathaway is your typical Mann protagonist: a strong, suave silent type who happens to be an expert in his field, he’s on the trail of a dangerous man who is on the other side of the law, though they share some common traits. Hemsworth is a good fit for such a part even if it is a stretch to accept the muscular, glowing leading man as a Foucault-reading hacker. (The running, fighting and shooting? No problem at all.) Opposite him Tang Wei, who starred in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, doesn’t really have a great deal to do, which is a shame. Her character is supposedly a high-ranking engineer, but ends up deferring to Hathaway, dutifully following his orders when he says it’s for the best if she leaves and returning to his arms like rather pathetically when the film requires a dash of romantic action. Perhaps slightly more interesting in terms of the supporting characters is Viola Davis’ cold, sarcastic FBI agent, but sadly even she becomes just another person who is in thrall of Hemsworth’s Hathaway, following him from location to location as he gradually becomes the group’s de facto leader.
Three big action set-pieces arrive in the second half of the film, all gripping. Perhaps that’s indicative of Blackhat‘s biggest problem: there’s nothing quite as thrilling as these during the first half, and even Mann struggles to make the scenes in which someone types or reads code on a screen even remotely interesting; there are far too many of these as Hathaway and co latch onto their opponent’s trail. So yes, Blackhat is a little disjointed: I much preferred the second half to the first, but I’d still take a Michael Mann action thriller over the numerous efforts churned out by hack directors each year, and there’s enough here for fans to get their teeth into. Not his best, by any means, but certainly not the stinker it was made out to be.
Directed by: Michael Mann.
Written by: Morgan Davies Foehl, Michael Mann.
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, Wang Leehom.
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh.
Editing: Joe Walker, Stephen E. Rivkin, Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Mako Kamitsuna.
Music: Atticus Ross, Harry Gregson-Williams.
Running Time: 133 minutes.