' Cinema Romantico: Blackhat

Monday, January 26, 2015

Blackhat

Late in “Blackhat”, Michael Mann, the Dexter Gordon of the digital camera, composes a glorious suite of shots. It starts with a wide frame of his principal characters, a pair of in-love and on-the-run hackers, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and Lien Dawai (Tang Wei), both of them scrolling their smartphones, him at a table and her in a cot, back to the camera. Then, Hathaway puts his phone down and joins her in bed. They lay together, Mann singling out an image of their intertwined arms. Then, it cuts to a close-up his phone buzzing, the computerized world always beckoning, always pulling us away from the physical. And that is the intersection where the glorious, ludicrous “Blackhat” resides.


Centered on cyber terrorism, the film’s roots are in reality, particularly in light of the recent Sony hack. Yet “Blackhat’s” attitude toward actual reality is best epitomized in its leading man, Hemsworth, he of the flowing mane, chiseled abs and button-down shirts opened to the chest at all times. The film’s auteur may be an infamous perfectionist, one who forced Mr. Hemsworth to read and write code, but no one would confuse this part-time cover model with a hacker in the real world. But that’s because in spite of the plot’s legitimacy issues, this isn’t the real world; this is Mann-Land, a wondrous place awash in synth music, machine gun fire, where even the simplest image is filled with as much grandeur as the Hong Kong Harbor at night. And in Mann-Land, Chris Hemsworth is the world’s best hacker.

A mysterious computer keyboard saboteur has set off an explosion in a Chinese nuclear power plant and triggered American stock market hysteria, and has apparently done so by employing a code that Hathaway created. China’s pre-eminent cyber security expert, Chen Dawai (Wang Leeholm), the man tasked to stabilize the threat, conveniently happens to be Hathaway’s old college roommate. Thus, he strikes a deal with American CIA agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) to spring Hathaway from the clink to aid the investigation. They greet each other with backslaps and salutations of “bro”, as if all that’s missing is the keg on the lawn, and you half-wonder if Chen’s ulterior motive was simply to get his old pal’s 15 year sentence commuted. And their friendship only garners additional oomph when Hathaway obligatorily falls for Lien, Chien's sister, an adept network programmer also brought into the fold.

Distinct aromas of the Colin Farrell/Gong Li relationship in Mann’s “Miami Vice” can be detected in Hathaway and Lien’s in-the-midst-of-possible-worldwide-catastrophe courtship, partially in the way it pairs off a blackhat and a whitehat, partially in the way Hemsworth seems to be affecting a Farrell-as-Sonny-Crockett whatever-that-was accent, but mostly in the way it is rendered almost exclusively in physical terms. In this film, love is something felt exclusively in your loins. Like Uncas looking at Alice for a split-second in “Last of the Mohicans” and us knowing all we need to know about the Olympic flame of his love, Lien putting a hand on Hathaway’s arm and pulling him out of a trance says more than a hundred thousand “He’s so fine” monologues.

There may be a significant amount of story happening but this relationship between hackers becomes the film’s crux and its grounding, specifically because it seeks to bridge that gap between virtual reality and the reality that’s right in front of us. Midway through the film it’s fair to wonder if we will ever see this rogue, unnamed hacker trotting around the globe by laptop because it seems symbolic to never get a look at his face, to never know our true enemy aside from the mayhem yielded online. Of course, eventually his face is revealed, and his moment of reckoning occurs in a sequence set amidst an Indonesian parade of ancient customs, one wherein Mann unfortunately falls back on the Hollywood trope of turning extras into collateral damage in the name of action. Still, its culmination packs a wallop, not so much from the mano-a-mano suspense as its distinct tangibility, two hackers brought out from behind their screens to swing knives.


“Blackhat” often teeters on the border of self-parody. It’s incessant Mann-erisms might leave those familiar with them thinking he’s plunged overboard and those unversed in his language, verbal and visual, wondering just what in the hell all these off-center frames and clichés posing as dialogue are supposed to be. This reviewer is an acknowledged devotee of the director and adores every trait to such a degree that in the sequence where yet another Michael Mann protagonist stares off at the distant horizon and sees something ineffable to everyone else it left me literally punching the arm of my fellow movie-goer in sheer ecstasy.

Mann is so entirely committed to his aesthetic that he fills every last ounce of every moment with relentless sincerity. When a certain character perishes, the film doesn’t keep galloping, it halts, if only for a moment - first, to present an intense close-up of that character's face and then to reverse the shot as a means to show the character's point-of view, looking up at a brightly lit skyscraper, one last look before one last breath, a singular detail of such awe-inspiring humanity contrasted so epically with the purposeful depersonalization of the plot that it brought tears to my eyes.

Its characters are not particularly complex, but then Mann isn't particularly interested in their psychological dimension. He has created something wholly visceral, a valorous attempt to reclaim the world from its mechanized overlords, to put skin to skin. “Blackhat” begins with a special effected dive into a computer's innards and ends with a shot of Hathaway and Lien clutching at one another's bodies. In today's world, you have to grab hold of someone and just hang the hell on.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I'm also a big Mann admirer, and there were parts of Blackhat that gave me chills. The two main action sequences, plus the final battle, are among the best that he's directed. Even so, something left me cold about Hemsworth and the main relationship. I still really liked Blackhat, but it doesn't even reach the levels of Miami Vice for me. It's a strong outing and a great start to the year, but there were parts that were hard to dismiss, even for a Mann fan.