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Blackhat (Michael Mann – 2014) Movie Review

***Contains spoilers***

This was easily one of my most anticipated movies of 2015. Every time a film is made by your favourite filmmaker, you’re going to be viewing it through different lenses (see The Simpsons ‘beer goggles’). It’s taken many cautious approaches to the keyboard to come and attempt to talk about Blackhat, or more appropriately, all that’s wrong with director Michael Mann and writer Morgan Davis Foehl’s techno-thriller. It’s a film that for the deafening action, eclectic international cast and genuinely prescient tapping in to the zeitgeist ‘fear’ of hackers actually turning their infinite power away from Jennifer Lawrence’s iPhone photo library or Sony’s emails to something more sinister. Blackhat falls hard with poor casting decisions and a build up to a villain that one could liken to the Pope commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel and when the job was done it was just a giant ‘spunking’ dick. Review now loading…

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When an anonymous hacker causes a nuclear meltdown in China a law enforcement team of U.S and Chinese anti-cyber-terror agents must join forces to stop them before they hit their next target. They have one lead; imprisoned ‘blackhat’ hacker Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) has had his signature code plagiarised by the terrorist attacker.

Blackhat still has a lot to offer. For starters, it’s one of the most nihilistic thrillers that Mann has ever attempted. In a pervasively digital world, hackers take lives without consequence and without demands. Political, religious even anarchic motivations are easy to digest and attempt to start the journey predicting the perpetrator’s next move, affiliates and strategies for the takedown. Miami Vice started the trend with international crime lord Archangel Montoya, operating a lucrative multi-tiered and multi-national organisation of illegality. He didn’t have allegiance to politics, in his words, “I don’t pay for a service, I pay for a result.” Sadak the hacker is triggering nuclear meltdowns flippantly and without demands. 

Mann’s formal dexterity is the other highlight of Blackhat. Utilising high definition camera work so that Hong Kong, Chicago and Jakarta nights are ablaze; or chases through the streets, or behind cover while you’re under fire with hand held cameras make you feel as if you’re neck deep in the mess with Hathaway, Dawai and Jessup. The technological world is vividly rendered here; Mann has spared no expense to portray the accurate tools of the trade and rhythm of hackers as well as doing a great job of digitally portraying the inner workings of physical computers being hacked. Like illuminated highways down motherboards in cool dark spaces, it ramps up the anticipation of a keyboard strike. Every actor that doesn’t prescribe to ‘method’ performing invariably comes out the other side of working on a Mann film having had a taste of it. Mann famously puts his players through a rigorous preparation, immersing themselves into the professions of their characters. Whether it’s posture, weapons training, (in the case of blackhat – coding) authenticity is paramount. Sadak’s team of mercenaries are particularly impressive, manoeuvring like elite armed forces with automatic weapons, dispatching the ill-prepared police and government teams in every country they infiltrate.

Some things just don’t work with Blackhat. The associations between the characters are so convenient that they feel terribly lazy. Morgan Davis Foehl’s scripting is doesn’t seem to find the balance between allowing the audience to intuit the character’s backstories, and so threadbare that you’re completely side swiped by their actions. Chris Hemsworth’s biggest crime is being cast as ‘blackhat’ hacker Nick Hathaway with his incredibly dominant physique. While Mann and Foehl go out of their way to explain how a man that’s usually behind a keyboard could be so ‘swoll,’ he has an uphill battle attempting to convince the audience that he’s anything other than an eye candy shaped, blunt instrument.

Leehom Wang’s Chen Dawai does not have the charisma or the presence to carry co lead role in this refreshingly international cast. He has an intensity reaching for Harvey Keitel but landing on Ridge from Bold and the Beautiful. Wei Tang’s Chen Lien is a passenger, masquerading as a viable love interest. She does nothing except propel Hathaway’s journey from one location to another. She’s essentially a tour guide that grants tension between the two leading characters. 

Viola Davis seems all but wasted as Agent Carol Barrett. There’s a brief but sensational series of exchanges with character actor Holt McCallany’s Hathaway handler Mark Jessup. They’re in hot pursuit, streaming through Indonesian streets and possibly to their career defining or destroying moments and Jessup gets to the root of Barrett’s belief in the anti-Terror cause. It’s something that when you’re relaying it sounds/feels like a generic stupidity but in the hands of Davis it’s able to transcend. Both agents in one way or another were front and centre for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and faced loss. There’s a poetic tragedy that both characters have come to the realisation that despite the honour and purity of the motivation to defend your country in the wake of an attack, they now, in the post 9/11 world, have lost their way.

Yorik van Wageningen plays Sadak the ‘big bad’ playing across from Hemsworth’s Hathaway. For such an elaborate and terrifying build up, it’s an extremely disappointing when you actually meet the man behind this myth. The most frightening motive is no motive at all, and Sadak’s motivations initially appear to be sociopathic. However, the more that you get to know the character, through the investigation and through the exchanges between he and Hathaway, the more that you realise that despite the elaborate nature of the cons and sabotage, at the end of the day it’s all a heist and that he and Hathaway are vastly more alike than they let on. In a way it’s structured like a kind of technological, globe trotting Die Hard, which means that the film hinges on Hathaway to ground the multinational task forces and techno garble. Let’s face it, Chris Hemsworth is NOT everyman, in a way that Bruce Willis’ John McClane was the perfect everyman; flawed, balding, working class and real. Hemsworth is perfect, sculpted and his profession is played by geeky, often portly, hirsute gents (van Wageningen to a tee).

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There’s also a lazy reflex for the villain to be an amoral dark reflection of the hero; in Michael Mann’s cinematic universe it’s a recurring theme, and when it’s done right, it’s sublime (Heat (McCauley and Hanna, Manhunter (Graham and Lecktor [they use a unique spelling in the film for some reason]/The Red Dragon), Collateral (Max and Vincent). In this case, it’s forced so hard into the final act that you can almost feel the clang and scrape of the crowbar lodging it into proceedings. The later Mann films take a vastly more interesting turn for their men crises; instead, the leading characters greatest obstructions are their own tendencies to self-destruct. Ali (Will Smith); where the man cannot help following his own strict moral code at the expense of his career. Miami Vice; Crockett (Colin Farrell) feels an uncontrollable lure towards the undercover personas that he performs that the line starts to blur; while Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) on the other hand is building a flimsy house of cards family within the ranks of his team and places his team front and centre to those that they’re conning. Public Enemies; Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is stuck in the tracks of infamy, and despite the rattle and shake to deviate, his own will defies him, the destination is set. Hathaway and Sadak are pitted against each other but, they’re eventually lead on a collision course for something so trivial in the scheme of all that’s occurred that by the time they face off it’s almost totally inconsequential.

Blackhat feels like the vehicle that Mann wanted to explore the hacking world but the casting and the script’s counterintuitive motivations it mutated away from his intent. It’s a shame.

Score: 2/5    

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

Director: Michael Mann

Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl

Starring:

Chris Hemsworth: Nick Hathaway

Leehom Wang: Chen Dawai

Wei Tang: Chen Lien

Viola Davis: Carol Barrett

Holt McCallany: Mark Jessup

Andy On: Alex Trang

Ritchie Coster: Elias Kassar

John Ortiz: Henry Pollack

Yorik van Wageningen: Sadak

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