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‘Blackhat’ Reviews: Chris Hemsworth and Michael Mann’s Hack Work Draws Binary Reactions

'Blackhat' Reviews: Chris Hemsworth and Michael Mann's Hack Work Draws Binary Reactions

Ladies and gents, we’ve got our first opinion-splitter of 2015, and it’s a movie about Chris Hemsworth as a genius computer hacker. Appropriately for a movie obsessed with 1s and 0s, Michael Mann’s moody cyberthriller “Blackhat” is drawing a binary response: Critics either love its languorous atmosphere or they think it’s an idiotic botch. Over the 14 years since “Ali,” through “Collateral” and “Miami Vice” and “Public Enemies,” Mann has moved steadily away from narrative and towards what, depending on your POV, you can see as abstract impressionism or mere indulgence. He’s delved deep into the possibilities of digital cinema, embracing its shortcomings as expressive tools — one fight scene in “Blackhat” has the look of a viral video shot on a pre-HD cell phone — and paring away dialogue, plot, or anything else that might get in the way. Mann’s always had an ardent group of core defenders, but “Blackhat” is even more more polarizing than most of his movies. Here’s what critics are saying so far.

Reviews of Michael Mann’s “Blackhat”

Rodrigo Perez, Playlist

“Blackhat” is a meticulous and exacting procedural, as obsessive with its hunt for its intangible antagonist as Mann’s compulsive desire to appreciate the flow of 1s and 0s in the virtual space. It’s chockablock with technobabble and jargon that may alienate the average viewer, but Mann’s secret weapon is his infectious fascination with the subject. The movie is like a conductive surface for his unmitigated zeal, and its potency is viral.

Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter

For all its headline-resonant specifics about computer forensics, “Blackhat” — which takes its name from the term for hackers with destructive intent — has something of an old-school movie heart: Its central couple’s race against the clock recalls such ’60s thrillers as Stanley Donen’s “Arabesque,” which pitted no less than Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren against devious masterminds using hieroglyphic messages. Here the hieroglyphics are strings of glowing numbers on screens, and while Mann’s vision is far grittier and more muscular than Donen’s, it’s no less elegant. 

Peter Debruge, Variety

At his best, Mann’s work explores the thin line that separates good from bad, acknowledging the moral complexities of the modern world. Thematically speaking, the seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines “Blackhat” falls perfectly in line with the ambiguities of “Collateral,” “Heat” and “Miami Vice,” as the film enlists a dangerous mind to work alongside privacy-violating law-enforcement officials. But it lacks both the chemistry and kinetic energy of those earlier films, and what’s more, it looks just plain awful at times, owing to Mann’s proclivity for down-and-dirty digital lensing.

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice

I can tell you pretty much everything that happens in Mann’s new cyberthriller, “Blackhat,” in just one sentence. But I could easily spend 40 sentences — probably even 100 or more — telling you how it happens, describing the splash of green and red traffic lights reflected in a windshield, the purply-brown needle bruise on the tattooed skin of a heroin overdose victim, the way the camera seeks out the faintly shadowed ballerina neck curve of Chinese actress Tang Wei. Mann takes the bland elements of the generic mainstream thriller — the cop being shot, the car exploding, the hot girl taking notice of the taciturn, musclebound hero — and gooses them into visual overdrive. In “Blackhat,” seeing isn’t believing; it’s merely the process that leads to believing.

Matt Prigge, Metro

Mann has never really known what to do with women, who tend to be classic damsels in distress, winding up in harm’s way when they try to play in a man’s (or Mann’s) world. This would be more perturbing if it wasn’t part and parcel of what is a distinct and stubborn worldview, one not so much sexist as simply unsure how to integrate women as something other than love objects. Mann is who he is, and what’s most striking about him at this point is the rough poetry of his images. He was an early adopter of video, back when it still looked splotchy. Video has long been able to pass for film, yet Mann still insists on a stock that at times looks digital. He doesn’t want video to aspire to something “better.” He loves that look; he loves the “imperfections,” and the way that it looks like anyone, even those without money, could have shot it. 

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush

Sexy hacker hookups? Action scarves? Scenes where furloughed convicts wander Los Angeles investigating crimes without supervision? Basically “Blackhat” is hokum, but it’s the right kind of hokum. 

Jesse Cataldo, Slant

Despite a fair share of clunky elements, director Michael Mann’s elegant work ultimately elevates the film above the level of the material, turning that initial image — of light and dark contrasted within a seemingly all-encompassing grid, its rigidity offset by a sinuous flow of wordless movement — into a gracefully expanding visual motif. Utilizing a variety of flourishes stemming from agile, expressive camerawork, the veteran action auteur upgrades what could have easily been a piece of high-concept junk, with an uneven script and the gruff, clumsy central presence of Chris Hemsworth into a stylish, tautly constructed thriller.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

Mann has proven over the years that he can direct the heck out of scenes of flight and pursuit, and Blackhat features fights and chases that hum with scary credibility. True to form, the film is full of sleek, cool Mann-isms: a speedboat coursing through Kowloon Bay under a fluorescent-stained night sky, a blunt, unsexy gun battle that rattles to the bone, people striding confidently across tarmacs in fancy sunglasses while synth music swells and blares. This is a snazzy-looking film, and many of Mann’s visuals pack genuine punch. Unfortunately there isn’t much else in “Blackhat” that resonates. The script, from first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, is downright awful, a soggy mishmash of tough-guy talk, stilted hacker jargon, and, in two screamingly bad bits of dialogue, incredibly clumsy references to 9/11. 

Jordan Hoffman, Guardian

Unfortunately, and shockingly, when you get through the dull blocks of text about IP routing and encrypted code, your reward is to spend more time with uninteresting, unknowable “good guys” tasked with finding and stopping an unseen villain. “Blackhat” is directed by Michael Mann, who was for decades a cutting-edge stylist. I fear Mr Mann has fallen victim to a syndrome that affects a great many artists. He was told he was a genius for so long that he started to believe it, and has begun making aesthetic choices so off the wall that no one dare tell him to stop now.

Ben Umstead, Twitch

This movie perhaps couldn’t have arrived at a better time to give us a hard look into our changing digital world. And yet what it does on its arrival is nothing of the sort. In fact, it mostly feels like it does, well, nothing. Chalk that up to Foehl’s lousy, illogical script, full of messy attempts at characterizing a high-tech world, plus the grave miscasting of ab-fab Chris Hemsworth as supreme hacker Hathaway. As for audiences who are curious as to what Mann brings to the table, that would be a pretentious, dead-eyed machismo. It is a flicker of the director’s former glory, from the calculated thrills of Thief to the symphonic wellspring of adventure in “The Last of the Mohicans” and hammer-heavy indictments of “The Insider.”

Drew McWeeny, HitFix

“Blackhat” is the worst film Michael Mann has made since “The Keep,” and I think given the choice between the two, I would happily watch “The Keep” again first. I am baffled by almost every moment of “Blackhat,” and I’m struggling to make sense of where something goes this wrong. I haven’t read the spec that Morgan Davis Foehl sold to the studio, but I know that Mann felt strongly that he deserved a co-writing credit on the film, one that the WGAw denied him after an arbitration. I’m not sure who to blame for the truly unfathomable narrative choices throughout, but I have to give Mann the final credit for creating a 135 minute film that didn’t feel a second less than five hours long.

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