It seems fitting that my first review for Pop Culture Beast is for a Michael Mann film. I am a Mann devotee (a Mannonite?). He’s a director whose films are slavishly devoted to the kind of kinetic energy that makes cinema unlike any other art form. The frames in his films are dangerous and alive. He is one of my favorite working directors. But, Michael Mann, what hath you wrought with Blackhat?
In the same way that an amputee can often feel sensations in the spot where their dearly departed used to be, Blackhat gives off the sensation of a Michael Mann film, but it’s merely sense memory; for everything endearing about Michael Mann has been irreparably mangled or excised altogether. Beneath Mann’s bag-of-tricks (not meant pejoratively, his bag contains some of my favorite tricks in movie-making) is a superficial shell of a Michael Mann film. Blackhat is little more than a model home, meant to look like something substantial but lacks any kind of credible foundation and topples over at the first sign of distress.
Blackhat is Mann’s first film since his egregiously under-appreciated 2009 film Public Enemies, and with six years separating the two, this is the largest picture-to-picture gap in Mann’s career. A globe-trotting thriller, following a crack team of federal agents and a rogue hacker cum international crime fighter, Blackhat is a manic look into the world of cyber-terrorism. Serving over a decade in federal prison for hacking millions of dollars out of U.S. banks, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, who is doing his best with an abysmal screenplay and continues to prove just why he is so goddamn charming) is furloughed to help a team of federal agents (including Viola Davis, who makes anything easier to watch) trace down a cyber-terrorist who has blown up a nuclear reactor in China. There’s a frenetic pace to all of Mann’s films, but Blackhat doesn’t know how to turn it off. Despite the lows at the film’s nadir, the opening sequence–in which the Chinese nuclear reactor is attacked–is quite well done (the multiple camera-inside-the-computer VFX gags, notwithstanding). But Blackhat has no concept of pacing or tone, giving equal weight and tenor to scenes of relative quiet, stripping any meaning or poignancy from scenes of actual significance.
Blackhat’s most shocking revelation is that Michael Mann has forgotten how to direct an action movie. Blocked and lit with the grace and beauty of a poorly conceived chase scene on a daytime soap opera, the action sequences in Blackhat are astoundingly inept. Some of the best moments in Heat’s famed bank heist scene are the handheld shots, putting the audience in between the cops and robbers. In Blackhat, Mann uses the handheld camera with all the technical precision and subjective awareness of Abraham Zapruder. The two biggest action sequences–one during the day in a yard of shipping containers and the other at night on a busy street corner–are some of the worst I’ve seen in years. Seemingly no longer devoted to the detail and precision that made his films unique, Mann has opted for a more chaotic approach to action filmmaking, one where explosions, gunfire and assaultive sound mixing take the place of anything intriguing or interesting.
As to be expected, there’s a lot of computer jargon in Blackhat. Having been graced with the digital aptitude and technical capabilities of a chimp set loose in a big box store, I can’t speak to whether or not the hacking and computer jargon makes any sense. I know I recognized some of the words, and that’s about it. But Mann, and screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, make very little effort to turn the computer lingo, digital espionage and fast-paced technical jargon into anything visually or thematically interesting. Assuming that most of the audience has computer skills similar to my own, most of the elaborate hacking sequences are explained in massive expository dumps that are as much fun as a trip to the dentist. Mann’s 1999 film The Insider was masterful in its ability to put complicated dialogue about corporate deceit into layman’s terms, without ever condescending to the viewer or sacrificing the thrill of the picture. But Blackhat is incredibly boring in its attempts to make the intricate world of computer hacking relatable or interesting.
Dropped in the middle of January, the heart of cinematic dumping ground, it seemed the writing was on the wall for Blackhat. But I held onto hope. In a career spanning more than thirty years, the only real blemish on Mann’s resume is 2006’s Miami Vice (which, despite being an abject failure, does feature one astounding and quintessential Michael Mann action sequence). But Blackhat has nothing worth salvaging. Loving Michael Mann in 2015 is like being a Chicago Cubs fan: there’s hope at the beginning of the year but after watching a total collapse the only sanctuary is in convincing yourself this was a rebuilding year and that next season will be better.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.