Movie a Day used to be an admirer of director Michael Mann for his showy, no-holds-barred visual and dramatic aesthetic, as reflected in films such as THIEF (1981), HEAT (1995), and COLLATERAL (2004), one of the first major features to shoot digitally.
He made countless women around the world swoon to Daniel Day Lewis’ bare chest in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS(1991) and in a sense changed the look of television by creating series such as MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY.
But Mann’s feature film career seems to be going ever more astray, and the latest example is BLACKHAT (2015, Theatrical), his over-the-top, alternately boring and ridiculous cyber-crime thriller that falls into every pitfall the genre offers. It left me stupified at times by its brazen awfulness.
The first and fatal mistake is the casting of Chris Hemsworth in the lead role of an imprisoned super-hacker (he stripped a bunch of banks of a bijillion dollars, but they deserved it, he lamely explains) who negotiates the totally expected deal with the Feds: help them nail a really bad super-hacker for the get-out-of-jail free card.
First of all, Hemsworth would quickly be the top candidate for Fresh Meat in any prison, white-collar or otherwise, and he just doesn’t sell as a computer nerd whose keystrokes are faster than his fitss. He turns out to be a whiz at multiple tasks, from keyboarding to martial arts to deadly marksmanship, but shit, he’s just a hacker.
Okay, but the next thing we’re supposed to buy is that our partners in stamping out this crime are the Chinese. It may not have been noted by the imprisoned Hemsworth, but the Chinese market has becoming the biggest overseas audience for Hollywood action films, so get ready for plenty more buddy relationships (Hemsworth and his former MIT roommate, played earnestly by Leehom Wang) and turgid romances, like the one with Wei Tang, whom whom Hemsworth has zero chemistry.
The plot gets ever more complex, and there are way too many scenes of characters staring at, what else, their computer screens, or sitting around instantly making obscure plot connections. Everyone gets shot at, some people get killed (not that we really care that much), and Hong Kong and Indonesia are nicely featured in extended chase sequences.
The ground-breaking aspect of BLACKHAT is supposed to be Mann’s use of digital effects to communicate the entrance of malware into a computer system by taking the Intel POV, as if we are a tiny chip inside the computer’s electronic bloodstream. Personally, I’d much rather be with Raquel Welch inside some person’s bloodstream than racing through Hemsworth’s ethernet cables.
All this was tried before, and also not successfully, by a young British director named Iain Softley in HACKERS (1995), with a young Angelina Jolie. Mann’s approach is more visually sophisticated, but in BLACKHAT it felt like I was stuck inside Jeff Bridges’ computer in TRON: LEGACY (2010) and I couldn’t get out.
I can’t imagine BLACKHAT turning into sequel material, even though the material couldn’t be more timely. The hacking of Sony Pictures, followed by the hacking of the entire Internet system of North Korea, shows that BLACKHAT can’t keep up with current events. It’s interesting that Mann makes the villain a white expatriate male in the world’s largest Muslim country; you can’t have the Chinese be the villains and the heroes in the same movie, but you can always blame the Muslims.
I hope Michael Mann can find his way back to coherent narrative storytelling, as he did in THE INSIDER (1999), even if that movie too was over the top. That’s just Mann, and it certainly beats the alternative boring cinema of many of his contemporaries. Just get the guy a decent story.