Staring at a computer screen with intense purpose (telegraphed by furrowed brows) at would-be imperative, complex and disturbing information is fundamentally dull, as well as uncinematic. Talking on a cell phone with concentration and increasing alarm is equally uninviting. But leave it to Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Collateral”) to circumvent these inherent restrictions with his propulsive cyber crime thriller “Blackhat.” This visceral affair crisscrossing over several continent is certainly not without some issues, but it’s is so lean and chiseled that it’s easy to become aesthetically enamored and engrossed.
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. A silent, almost five-minute opening cycle depicts data flowing through the exoskeleton of the Internet. In a sequence that’s part “The Matrix,” part Malick, and reminiscent of the micro-landscapes captured in David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” intro credits are presented as electrons hurtling forward menacingly through the digital abyss. This animated scene provides no context other than visual perspective —other filmmakers would tack on a voice-cover as a guide— but is proof of Mann’s pure commitment to his ideas, for better worse. It’s a ballsy and striking prelude.
Opening in Hong Kong after a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant’s cooling system causes near catastrophe, the world’s intelligence agencies leap into action. Chinese authorities, led by cyber defense officer Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang from “Lust, Caution”) alongside his network systems engineer sibling, Lien Chen (Wei Tang also from the same Ang Lee movie), track the invasion to the United States and appeal for the cooperation of the CIA (represented by a characteristically hardnosed Viola Davis and her boss John Ortiz). Their tenuous joint operation is quickly stymied by the intricate coding used in the malware attack, and Dawai insists on commuting the sentence of an ex-MIT graduate and convicted American “blackhat” programmer (geek speak for hacking cybercriminal) who knows the cryptograms intimately (and happens to be an old friend). The convict, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), is furloughed in exchange for his cooperation and expertise. With his assistance, U.S. and Chinese forces are led on a sprawling pursuit around the globe on the trail of an impossibly evasive ghost hacker bent on sabotaging the international stock market for what may be far more malicious ends.
“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.
Aesthetics and impetus are also Mann’s principal tools, which are employed with a momentum that moves as sleekly as a Ferrari. The crepuscular photography of Stuart Dryburgh (“The Painted Veil,” “The Piano“) is gorgeously low-lit with “Blade Runner”-esque cityscapes and lights streaking the night sky (Fincher’s DP Jeff Cronenweth will no doubt look on admiringly). Those that had serious issues with Mann’s anachronistic digital photography in his last feature-length film “Public Enemies” should have no quibbles here. Likewise, the score by Atticus Ross, Leo Ross and (maybe not so much) Harry Gregson-Williams is kinetic, atmospheric and resplendently melodramatic (British producers and Bjork collaborator The Haxan Cloak says he worked on the film as well).
Elegantly constructed in its escalating tension and yet at times clunky, “Blackhat” has intractable issues that it nonetheless overcomes. The movie suffers from an uneven script: a clumsy romantic subplot is rushed and there is some tin-eared dialogue as well. More critically, enormous levels of suspension of disbelief are asked of viewers. But it’s clear that storytelling and character are not of premium concern to Mann, and neither is the matter of a charismatic lead. Neither Mann nor Hemsworth make any allowances towards making Nicholas Hathaway relatable. Which is to say that Mann’s story isn’t very good, but it’s a proof of his prowess that it doesn’t really matter.
At two hours and fifteen minutes, “Blackhat” is a sprawling marathon, perpetually unfurling with information, complication and consequences. What’s problematic in the moment becomes less important as the movie surges forward to its conclusion. Placing the movie next to something as orthodox as, say, “The Imitation Game” — another movie concerned with problem solving at all costs— one can see just how disinterested in convention Mann is.
Mann’s picture is a cold, obdurate detective procedural through and through. It’s unusual in the way it treats its characters as occasionally disposable pawns in a larger schematic. Nowhere does the film evince a concern in traditional character arcs or redemption for its protagonist. Moving with contemporaneous energy, “Blackhat” is entranced by capturing the immediacy and simmering fears of our uncertain digital era. In that, the film excels. It’s perhaps most reminiscent of “Miami Vice,” Mann’s misunderstood 2006 crime thriller which was accused of being stylishly empty but has proven to be eminently watchable. “Blackhat” places similar consideration on muscular dramatic energy, mood and verve over plot.
As the movie boils down to a somewhat simplistic revengier, “Blackhat” misses the opportunity to say something more complex about the state of privacy, the myth of confidentiality and the game changing era of cyber terrorism other than it does here. But its final surveilling and disquieting moments remind us that the very fabric off Mann’s porous movie is constantly in flux, continually commenting on our age of anxiety.
Mann’s tactile, bracing filmmaking is nevertheless engaging and as always polarizing. I’m not often prone to champion aesthetics and auteurial stamps over fundamentals such as character and story, but “Blackhat” is the rare film in which overall viscera trumps more comfortable virtues. As a precise and inflexible art thriller with a singularity of vision, I wouldn’t want anything less. [B+]