Thursday, January 29, 2015

Attack of the Cyber Mann: Blackhat

Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang in Blackhat.

Michael Mann’s new action thriller Blackhat is set in the up-to-the-minute world of  international cybercrime, with a hero (Chris Hemsworth) who’s a computer hacker pitted against an apolitical cyber-terrorist who engineers cataclysms, such as a near-meltdown at a nuclear power planet, in order to cash in on them. The term “blackhat” refers to this villain (played by the Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen), but the character doesn’t have the stature to justify his being the film’s title character; he’s nameless and, for most of the movie, faceless. (We only get a good look at him as the movie is heading into its violent climactic set piece, so we’ll know which of the people on screen the hero is going to try to kill last.) Maybe his speeches about not knowing where, or even who, he is are meant to make his character seem computer-age, but he just comes across as seedy and dazed. Probably Mann just thought the title sounded cool. 

Reviewers invoke words like “existential” to describe the mixture of violence, dread, self-righteous anger, romantic feeling, and macho dorm-room philosophy that’s become Michael Mann’s specialty, and Mann wouldn’t have it any other way, but as a moviemaker (and sometime TV creator), what he really deals in is a vision of cool. Blackhat, whose script is credited to Morgan Davis Foehl, is a wall-to-wall, 133-minute installation display of familiar Mannerisms, starting with the distinctive look of the nocturnal shoot-outs and blow-up scenes. Working with the cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (who shot the pilot for Mann’s HBO series Luck), Mann continues to use digital cameras to great effect, something he’s been doing since 2004’s Collateral. The locations in Blackhat include Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Chicago, Malyasia, and Jakarta, and the opening scenes include striking images set inside a computer system, one of the portals that now serve to connect all these distant compass points as one big, interconnected economic system.

Tang Wei and Wang Leehom in Blackhat.
When the bad guy starts to bring things crashing down, the Chinese military officer (Wang Leehom) in charge of the international team assembled to bring him down announces that there is one man who is essential to their mission: Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway, his old college roommate, who’s now a convicted cyber criminal four years into a long prison stretch.  After a few scenes meant to establish that his time behind bars has made Hathaway the most physically confident, ripped tech genius in nerd history, and some exchanges between Hathaway and the people negotiating the terms of his release (which serve to establish that he’s one cocksure bastard who takes guff from no one), Hemsworth finally swaggers out into the sunshine, his precious eyeballs sheathed behind sunglasses. The other members of the team, which includes such reliable actors as Viola Davis and Holt McCallany, also stopped off at Sunglass Hat on their way to the prison. This is enough to tell you that, while the 71-year-old Mann may be determined to keep up with this brave new world when it comes to things like real-life patterns of criminal behavior and filmmaking technology, his conception of what’s cool hasn’t moved an inch in the thirty years since Miami Vice, the series. More ominously, Hemsworth’s eyewear has more personality than he does.

Hemsworth has a likable presence, but his performance here leaves you feeling that he shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a winged helmet and the words “TRADEMARKED PROPERTY OF MARVEL COMICS” stamped on his butt. It’s easy to make fun of the fashionably tormented, too-cool-for-school vibe that envelopes actors like Al Pacino in Heat and Don Johnson on Miami Vice when they’re really selling Mann’s Armani-clad version of the Hemingway code—that pose that’s summed up by Pacino’s proudly mispronounced line, “I gotta hang onto my angst”—but watching Hemsworth fail to measure up to the classic Mann heroes who’ve come before him does make you realize that it takes a lot of work and the right style to bring that off in a way that can make you giggle affectionately. When Mann is firing on all cylinders, he can get you stirred up and even move you even if you never entirely forget that his romantic imagination is grounded in pulp, and that his efforts to elevate pulp often just make it sillier.

For that, it helps to have a hero the audience can believe in and root for, but Hemsworth, bland and grim and struggling to grunt out his lines in an American accent that sounds as if it’s hurting his throat, is a drag on the whole movie. He simply isn’t fun to watch, and he’s actively annoying to listen to. Tang Wei, as the romantic lead—she’s Chen’s sister—is a much more adept practitioner of the Mann cool.  The moments when she and Hemsworth just feast their eyes on each other serve as welcome timeouts from the bursts of gunfire and expository dialogue, though there’s none of the erotic charge that Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard brought to Mann’s last movie, Public Enemies (2009). The adolescent streak that informs Mann’s macho existentialism extends to his romanticism, which often consists of scenes of very, very sexy people being fairly chaste with each other. Tang may be best known in the West for her sexually gymnastic performance opposite Tony Leung in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007); here, once she and Hemsworth get over the hump of falling passionately in love, they do a lot of semi-clad snuggling in bed.

Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis in Blackhat.
Public Enemies also suffered from a central charisma deficiency—the script was built on the contrasting rise of the celebrity gangster John Dillinger (Depp) and the G-man who’d bring him down, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), but the dullness of his role wiped Bale out—and was accused by many reviewers of being a cold, dull exercise in style, but I got off on Mann’s delight in the details of the Depression-era gangster mythology, with its recreations of Chicago bank robberies and the shootout at Little Bohemia. Blackhat is the real thing: a large-scale exercise in pure formalism, with elaborate action scenes that are visually stunning and dramatically nonexistent, because the plot boils down to a battle of wills between two cyphers. (Ritchie Coster, as the villain’s right-hand man, gets more screen time than his boss, and delivers a solid, scary performance, but he’s clearly defined as just a cog in the machine, a goon for hire.) 

The bad guys keep killing off the supporting characters, to ratchet up the hero’s need for revenge, and every time the movie disposes of a character actor who’s more engaging than Hemsworth, a little more air goes out of the proceedings. And after all the whooshing around in the bowels of a computer, Mann and his screenwriter couldn’t think of a way to illustrate crime and crime-fighting in the information age except through the now-time-honored method of having Hemsworth and Tang trying to look intense while banging on their laptop keyboards; the high-tech scenes, which ought to be at the heart of what the movie is about, are just filler, taking up space until the hero can show that he’s also good with a blade and a guns and a sharpened screwdriver. (It all comes down to a ludicrous battle-to-the-death in the middle of some kind of ritual parade of Indonesians who are so devoted to hitting their marching steps that none of them would dream of running for their lives when people start firing guns into the crowd.) Blackhat is the Michael Mann equivalent of a subpar, late-model Walter Hill movie, like Bullet to the Head, except that the primitive action mechanics of a movie like that can at least can you awake, while Mann’s dreamy, romantic action poetry, yoked to a dull lead and too many scenes that are retreads of things the director has done before (and could probably do in his sleep), lays you right on your ass. It’s not hack work; it’s probably the best-looking, most beautifully choreographed action movie you’ll be bored stiff by all year.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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