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Michael Mann’s ‘Blackhat’ Isn’t Quite Dumb Enough to Be Great

Michael Mann's 'Blackhat' Isn't Quite Dumb Enough to Be Great

One of the most frequently lodged complaints against critics, most recently in the miniature furor over Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” winning Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics, is “You wouldn’t like that movie if it had someone else’s name attached.” It’s invariably said with smirk, or the online equivalent thereof, as if the speaker has just delivered a death blow from which his auteurist fanboy target will never recover, but it only sounds smart. “You only like that Godard movie because Godard directed it” presumes that every frame of a distinctive director’s movie isn’t infused with her or his personality; put anyone else’s name on “Goodbye to Language,” and it would still be Godard’s. It’s like saying “You wouldn’t feel that way if your mom was Queen Elizabeth.”

There are, however, movies that put this proposition to the test, and Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” is one of them. Mann, who created “Miami Vice” in the 1980s and went on to direct a string of brooding, intoxicated features including “Manhunter,” “Heat,” “Collateral” and “Miami Vice” (again), is one of the most distinctive stylists of his generation, which is what makes his admirers swoon and his detractors roll their eyes back into their heads. As a Mann agnostic, I have found his movies visually stunning and his preoccupation with Tough Men Doing Tough-Man Things to verge on the risible: For all its synth-soaked portentousness, “Heat” feels like the kind of thing a sullen 14-year-old might act out with action figures.

Although it centers on a genius computer hacker, “Blackhat” may be, objectively speaking, Mann’s stupidest movie — and that is, by and large, a very good thing thing. Like Chris Hemsworth, who plays said hacker, “Blackhat” may be dumb, but good Lord it is beautiful. Mann embraces the possibilities, and the limitations, of digital cinema as only one of his alpha males can: in a series of rapidly dissolving close-ups, with a Phil Collins ballad blaring on the soundtrack. When Hemsworth fights off a bad guy in a Korean restaurant — and yes, this is a movie where a computer whiz is also proficient in hand-to-hand combat and the use of firearms — Mann shoots it like a viral video captured by a quick-fingered patron at an adjoining table. There are magisterial views of a Hong Kong harbor at night, the vertical lines of skyscrapers like slits in black velvet, and there are foot chases that might have been shot with a GoPro taped to the cinematographer’s back.

Some of “Blackhat’s” critics, who comprise a substantial majority of its reviewers, complain that the movie is hard to follow or doesn’t make sense, but that’s not a failure as much as a choice. Mann is so actively uninterested in conventional notions of plot and character that when Hemsworth’s character starts to explain his difficult relationship with his father, the movie fades out halfway through his speech. This is where the anti-auteurists start to argue special pleading. From anyone else, wouldn’t that simply be incompetent filmmaking? But as with last year’s “Lucy” and “Interstellar,” two movies that met with many of the same complaints from many of the same critics, “Blackhat” has to be read in visual terms, which Mann encourages by burying the dialogue in the sound mix and making most of it aggressively un-memorable. Think of it as a one-night stand that would only be ruined by too much chatter.

If you put your brain to work on “Blackhat,” you’ll only get stuck on wondering why the movie’s hackers all use molded plastic keyboards that are at least a decade out of date, or why their monitors bleep each time they unveil a new column of text. (Answer: Because those things were cool in the ’80s and they’re cool now.) As much as he loves shooting with new technology, Mann prefers the old stuff on the other side of the lens. The hacker’s tech is powerful, but it’s clunky, right down to ATM that lingers on the “Do you want a receipt?” screen in the movie’s penultimate shot. It’s the computer equivalent of Hemsworth’s chiseled abs and smashed-in face.

In fact, if there’s a problem with “Blackhat,” it’s that it’s not quite dumb enough. Unlike “Lucy,” it never goes as satisfyingly off the rails as you (okay, I) want it to, and it’s still mired in Mann’s embrace of retrograde masculinity. If there’s a way to see the climactic scene where Hemsworth angrily throws faceless Malaysians to the ground for daring to get in the way of his existential moment as a comment on the character’s narcissism, or even the historic privileging of the white male subject, I am powerless to devise it. But there I go, thinking again.

More on “Blackhat”

Manohla Dargis, 
New York Times

he contrast between the richness of the action and the thinness of the (still beautiful) images is just one of many dualities that runs through the movie, as when Mr. Mann cuts from a fanlike image spreading across a screen to a huge flame shooting out from under a Hong Kong cook’s wok. Time and again, he puts computer and other spaces into play visually, mapping a brave new world with images of kaleidoscopically pulsing screens and the jewel-like glittering of nighttime megacities. The practical locations, with real bodies moving through real spaces, underline the idea that something big is still at stake in the physical world.

Tim Grierson, Screen Daily

Despite “Blackhat’s” clear, significant flaws, Mann knows his strengths so well that he can transcend the script’s deficiencies to get to the themes that engage him. And from “Heat” to “The Insider” to “Public Enemies,” that’s been a fascination with how men operate in the world — and how they go about doing their work. “Blackhat” doesn’t have the existential underpinnings that ennobled films as diverse as “Ali” and “Collateral,” but for as surface-y as his new movie is, it’s altogether arresting, his sleek, muscular style practically a political statement in its own right.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

Go ahead and call this silly, but that’s missing the point. The movie is high-grade kid stuff, loaded with frantic keyboard poundings, an unlikely love affair (with “Lust, Caution’s” Wei Tang) and splattery urban shoot-outs between white people running through Asian markets that bump up against colonialism. Mann doesn’t get the unhinged performances he did from Al Pacino in “Heat” and “The Insider,” but at least he’s back on familiar ground after the calamitous misfire of 2009’s “Public Enemies.”

Keith Uhlich, Reverse Shot

I don’t think this is a matter of Mann repeating himself. The more “Blackhat” unspools, the more it appears the filmmaker is consciously reworking the tropes he knows and is known for (the screenplay is by Morgan Davis Foehl, an admitted Mann devotee), setting them up only to frustrate expectation and conventional satisfaction. Hathaway has a backstory that he confesses to Lien Chen after their first night together, but Mann films it as a half-heard anecdote in a longer, impressionistic montage. The words don’t matter, and where Hathaway is from isn’t the point. As that earlier scene in jail suggests, he only ever exiss in the present moment and acclimates accordingly.

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com

You could call this movie “Michael Mann’s Greatest Hits” and mean it as a slam or a compliment, depending on your feelings about the director — but all the hits have been remixed and rethought. As written by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl, photographed by Stuart Dryburgh (“The Piano,” “Ameila”), and cut by a team of editors, “Blackhat” has enough fighting, shooting and brooding to satisfy fans of “Collateral” and “Heat,” plus a bumper crop of trademark Mann images: daytime and nighttime skylines, existentially empty roads, cops and criminals posed against post-industrial landscapes, soul-mates having deep conversations in restaurants, reflections in rear-view mirrors and picture windows, brazenly off-center closeups, bespoke suits and designer sunglasses. These Mann-erisms feel newly poignant because they’re celebrating light, space, architecture and flesh, even as the movie’s heroes obsess over virtual conspiracies, and keep an eye peeled for coldblooded killers dispatched by hidden masters. 

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Always a crisp, propulsive storyteller with a gift for striking images, Mann and his cast and crew traveled 10,000 miles to 74 locations in places like Hong Kong, a remote part of Malaysia and bustling Jakarta, Indonesia, to bring “Blackhat” to life. Technology may have changed, cyber-crime may be all the rage, but the narrative song remains the same in films like this, and it’s a tune this director knows by heart.

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.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club

Nobody works a theme like Mann, who can invest a shot of a character framed against an ocean or a white wall with real moral weight, as though that endless blank space were some kind of mirror for the soul. He takes insider jargon, military tech, and skyline architecture, and arranges them in ways that are poetic, producing images and turns of phrase that transcend milieu: a speedboat moving through Hong Kong Harbor at night; gunmen huddled behind concrete blocks at the end of a tunnel that resembles a Richard Serra sculpture; the most beautiful shot of a ringing cell phone ever filmed, its screen framed like a monolith.

Rodrigo Perez, the Playlist

Uncompromising and indulgent to a fault, Mann makes no concessions to the mainstream viewer here and announces his esoteric intentions early on with near-psychedelic abstraction.

Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope

Suffice it to say that I feel the same way, to greater or lesser degrees, about “Miami Vice,” “Public Enemies,” and “Blackhat” as I do about “Collateral” — that their stray, seemingly magically engineered moments of visual beauty do not excuse their basic preposterousness. Nevertheless, the argument that these films are actually enhanced — for some, to the level of transcendence — by the tension between their flat-lined writing and acting and Mann’s preternatural command of light, composition and editing is persuasive, when selectively applied.

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