Monday, January 19, 2015

In Theaters: BLACKHAT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Morgan Davis Foehl. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Wang Leehom, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, Yorick Von Wageningen, John Ortiz, Andy On, William Mapother, Jason Butler Harner, Spencer Garrett, Christian Borle. (R, 133 mins)

Michael Mann is one of the dwindling number of American auteurs whose every new project is a legitimate event for serious film connoisseurs. BLACKHAT is his first film since 2009's PUBLIC ENEMIES, an uninspired John Dillinger biopic not helped in the least by dull performances from Johnny Depp and Christian Bale playing Prohibition-era dress-up. Prior to that, Mann's 2006 big-screen take on MIAMI VICE, the iconic TV series on which he served as producer and showrunner from 1984-1986, was another disappointment that never caught fire. Both MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES have been the subject of much debate, with die-hard Mann apologists insisting they're misunderstood masterpieces and worthy of mention in the same breath as Mann essentials like THIEF (1981), MANHUNTER (1986), and HEAT (1995). Mann's been focused on producing other projects over the last few years, such as the barely-released thriller TEXAS KILLING FIELDS (2011), directed by his daughter Ami Canaan Mann, and the ill-fated HBO racetrack-set series LUCK, canceled after one season due to multiple horse deaths on set. BLACKHAT finds the great filmmaker reclaiming his mojo for what's easily his best film since COLLATERAL (2004), though it's proven to be divisive with both critics and fans. In a controversial stance with the celluloid faithful, the 71-year-old Mann has openly and fully embraced digital filmmaking at a time when many younger directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino are fighting tooth-and-nail to keep 35mm alive. With BLACKHAT, Mann uses digital technology not for clarity, but to enhance an almost primitive grittiness to the film's general look and feel. He uses handheld cameras in chase scenes and fight sequences in a way that, yes, probably constitutes the dreaded "shaky cam" aesthetic, but by not editing the hell out of them, he allows a coherent and natural flow to the action. He's content to let it happen, even if it doesn't look pretty. Some of the best action bits in BLACKHAT look like what might happen during real fights and chases. They look awkward and unrehearsed. The choreography has a clumsiness to it, like these are people who don't get in fights and chases very often. The sound design is sometimes intentionally disorienting, putting the audience in sync with the characters, working in tandem with the look of the film to jarring, powerful effect.

Some scenes in BLACKHAT look like Mann could've shot them using his phone, and in the context of this film, it works. The Mann hallmarks are all here: the captivating, neon-drenched skylines and city streets; a propulsive, hypnotic synth/loop score courtesy of Harry Gregson-Williams and regular David Fincher/Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross; and a compelling hero in Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). An ace computer hacker four years into a 13-year stretch at a federal prison in Pennsylvania, Hathaway's skills are called upon by both the FBI and the Chinese government when a hacker--dubbed "Blackhat"-- uses a RAT (Remote Access Tool) to cause an explosion and a near-meltdown at a Chinese nuclear power plant, followed by a catastrophic manipulation of soy futures on the stock market. Chinese cybercrimes specialist Chen Dawai (Wing Leehom) recognizes the first half of the code used in the attack: he co-wrote it with Hathaway when they were roommates at MIT. Working in conjunction with FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), Dawai manages to get his old buddy furloughed to help track the elusive hacker, with the promise that if his assistance leads to a capture, Hathaway's sentence is commuted and he's a free man.  Also along for the ride are Chen's tech-savvy sister Lien (Tang Wei), who also functions as a love interest for Hathaway, Hong Kong cop Trang (Andy On), and US Marshal Jessup (Holt McCallany), tagging along to keep an eye on Hathaway, who's been outfitted with an ankle bracelet if he decides to flee.

While some of the criticism of BLACKHAT has targeted its wild, labyrinthine plot (the script is credited to first-timer Morgan Davis Foehl but was significantly rewritten by Mann, who was ultimately denied a co-writing credit by the WGA), which really isn't that hard to follow, most of it has been aimed at Hemsworth's casting as a computer hacker with a six-pack. Sure, we probably have a stereotypical image of this sort of character being a pasty schlub chowing down on Funyuns and ramen and drinking Mountain Dew, but is the idea of a ripped hacker really a deal-breaker here?  It's an especially petty criticism when we see Hathaway tossed into solitary early on (after hacking into the prison computer system and adding $900 to the spending account of every inmate) and immediately doing push-ups to pass the time. He's been in a tough prison for four years with nothing to do and plenty of time to shred and learn how to defend himself. Couldn't the possibility exist that Hathaway turned into Thor while incarcerated? Why is this such a bone of contention? Hathaway is a guy cut from the same cloth as James Caan's Frank in THIEF and Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley in HEAT: career criminals with a sense of honor. Hathaway's crimes targeted banks, not people. And when he's pulled into Dawai's and Barrett's investigation, he uses his criminal expertise for a good cause and becomes an equal team player. Hathaway has numerous chances to bolt and become a fugitive, but his friendship with Dawai, his feelings for Lien, and his grudging respect for the agents and the mutual trust that forms among them--after starting out firmly in "...if they don't kill each other first!" territory--is the foundation of an eclectic and appealing ensemble essayed by a top-notch group of familiar character actors. Hathaway isn't a criminal looking for a shot at redemption. He's looking to get out of prison by helping an old friend. But even that becomes secondary after a game-changing plot development completely alters the stakes going into the inevitable confrontation with the enigmatic Blackhat.

Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (THE PIANO) create the almost otherworldly real-world look that Mann fans know and love, with the skyline of Hong Kong and other locales--an extensive, HEAT-like shootout in the slums of Shek O in Hong Kong; a dried river bed in Malaysia that looks like a post-nuke wasteland; or the camera circling some actors standing in the exposed upper levels of a half-completed skyscraper in Jakarta--looking especially arresting. BLACKHAT is pretty loopy, but it moves at such a breakneck pace that you really don't have time to question the specifics of the jargon-heavy plot. Mann manages to make suspenseful set pieces out of scenes that consist of people staring at screens reading a jumble of letters and numbers until Hathaway exclaims "There! There's the code!" as they hustle to another far-off location. The $70 million BLACKHAT grossed a pitiful $4 million over its opening weekend, providing more proof that people just don't give a shit about the Hemsworth brothers outside of established franchise branding, and they especially don't care about the Hemsworth brothers if they're starring in tech-heavy cyber-espionage thrillers (lest we forget Chris' HUNGER GAMES-starring brother Liam in 2013's terrible PARANOIA). Though 2015 is young, it's possible that we already have this year's KILLING THEM SOFTLY or THE COUNSELOR, two badly-received box office failures that had a quick turnaround into open-armed acceptance in cult movie circles. The resounding rejection of BLACKHAT after a very aggressive promotional blitz throughout the holiday season doesn't bode well for revered likes of Michael Mann. Look, BLACKHAT is no THIEF. It's no MANHUNTER, and it's no HEAT. But it's still the best thing Mann's done in a decade--a perfect balance between pursuing his digital dreams and giving the audience the Mann film they came to see. It's mystifying that, after coming up with every excuse imaginable to defend utter mediocrities like MIAMI VICE and PUBLIC ENEMIES, BLACKHAT is where the Mann faithful decide to bail. If Michael Mann fans can't get behind an exhilarating and visually stunning return to form like BLACKHAT, then I really don't know exactly what it is they want.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, you've made me reconsider this one, as you so often do!