Review: Michael Mann’s subversive ‘Blackhat’ is uniquely familiar.

In the past, if you wanted to steal money, you would hire a professional safe cracker or you might grab a few ski masks and AK-47’s to rob a bank in broad daylight.  In those instances, people didn’t get hurt as a result of the stolen money, only institutions.

Today, sophisticated criminals use the digital world to do their dirty work – hackers and network specialists hide their trails among the 1’s and 0’s; the bits and bytes of data.  If you’re good enough, you might even be able to affect the course of every day goods and services, thus affecting everyday people.

If both of these scenarios sound like the basis of any number of Michael Mann’s films, you’d be absolutely correct.  And, while we pay homage to Thief and Heat, we must acknowledge his foray into the digital underworld with Blackhat.

Inspired by the Stuxnet computer worm, Mann worked with former editor turned screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl to deliver a taut, if somewhat glacially-paced thriller.  Chris Hemsworth plays Hathaway, an imprisoned hacker who is furloughed when a nuclear reactor overheats and a stock exchange is hacked, causing soy futures to rise.  Hathaway’s former college roommate, Chinese captain Chen Dawai played by Leehom Wang discovers that Hathaway’s code was used to infiltrate the various affected systems.  Viola Davis plays FBI Agent Carol Barrett.

Foehl’s script is steeped in rich characters and locations that span the globe while Mann, true to his form, is authentic to his subject matter maintaining his tried and true style of filmmaking.  The result is a thriller that modern audiences can relate to.

Hemsworth’s casting was criticized at the time of the film’s release, suggesting that he looked too good to be a hacker.  However, he carries the narrative and his magnetic attraction to Chen Lien (Tang Wei), Chen Dwai’s sister, is as strong as Eady’s relationship with McCauley in Heat, Isabella and Crockett’s relationship in Miami Vice or Jessie’s relationship with Frank in Thief – each of these relationships are just as dynamic and as important to the overall story.  Mann chose to use Lien here as much as he used Isabella in Vice; each a fundamental reason why our main protagonists continued on to their logical conclusions.

If there were any criticisms here, they would be leveled at the antagonist, Sadak played by Yorick van Wageningen.  Although he was vindictive enough to have cooked up the plan, his motives were not well-laid out, though they are understood.  Sadak is not the anti-hero we are used to seeing and there is not the same dynamic between he and Hathaway, giving us only glimpses of threats under the murkiness of the Internet.  Perhaps, this is the film’s genius in that today’s society can very easily hide behind a firewall, never meeting another real person, releasing threats with just the stroke of a couple of keys.

For dramatic purposes, that theory holds water.  But we need meat and potatoes, people.

Where McCauley had a dynamic relationship with Vincent Hannah or Vincent had with Max, the virtual dynamic here is nowhere near as strong as the aforementioned visual dynamics.  For Blackhat, the visual dynamic is laid between Hathaway and Kassar (Ritchie Coster), Sadak’s henchman who also operates in the shadows, but is more representative of the worldly threat.  And, this is the film’s major downfall.  The story could not balance all three relationships.

Stuart Dryburgh carried on the photo-realistic look that permeates Mann’s films, similar to Dion Beebee’s work in Miami Vice and even more reminiscent of Beebee’s and Paul Cameron’s work in Collateral where the colors are oversaturated and the image is frenetically on the move, almost as if they smeared Vaseline on the edges of the lens and paned the camera rapidly.  The use of 2.35:1 really lent a global perspective to the film, becoming a character of its own.

Harry Gregson-Williams and Atticus Rose each contributed to the film’s score.  Reportedly, Mann abandoned Gregson-Williams’ score almost completely favoring Rose’s despite both getting screen credit.

I saw the film when it hit theaters in 2015 and I was not initially a fan. Like any good Mann film, I gave it the benefit of the doubt.  FX recently debuted a director’s cut of the film which makes one major change in the film’s timeline, but doesn’t take or add any additional scenes.  The change does improve the flow of the film.

Blackhat is a unique entry in Mann’s collection of film, authentic to its core while carrying his familiar themes.  Despite my earlier misgivings, it is better than I remember and is a worthy addition to his body of work.

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