Sunday, August 16, 2015

Blackhat Movie Review

I have found myself over the years consistently enthralled by Michael Mann’s movies. He creates stories of men entirely dedicated to their professions, seemingly without limits. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro faced off as detective and thief, two men who would stop at nothing (including the loss of a relationship) in completing the mission in Heat. Daniel Day-Lewis was a frontiersman trying to save the woman he loved in The Last of the Mohicans. Tom Cruise was a fiercely professional hitman toying with Jamie Foxx’s cab driver in Collateral. And Foxx and Colin Farrell lived the lives of undercover narcotics detectives in Miami Vice. Mann sets these stories amid the allure of gorgeous cinematography, often making well-known cities look like brand new tailored playgrounds for men with fast cars and guns, whether it’s L.A., Miami, or Hong Kong in his latest, Blackhat.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I watched it, but Blackhat ranks far down my list of reasons I love Michael Mann films.  Maybe I’m no longer enamored with sense of duty and professional dedication. Maybe the world of computer hacking, spying, and manipulating global markets for personal gain doesn’t resonate with me. It’s certainly topical and worth exploring and I even think Mann was probably the perfect director for it.

Someone cyber-attacks the commodities market and a nuclear reactor in China. Neither the Chinese nor the FBI are able to make any headway in the investigation even with the American-educated chief Chinese military cyber detective Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) working alongside the Americans. The FBI team is led by Barrett (Viola Davis). Dawai brings his sister Lien (Wei Tang) because something about needing a network engineer he can trust. Really she’s along just so she can fall for Chris Hemsworth, who plays I suppose the most amazing incredible genius hacker the world has ever known. He’s so severe a criminal it takes eight fully-armored guards to walk him from his cell to the prison warden. He’s Nick Hathaway, Dawai’s college roommate and the author of the code the hacker is using. Dawai arranges to have Hathaway released from prison to aid in the investigation.

Mann’s stylistic touches are all there as usual: the digital photography that brings the cityscapes into sharp focus; the metallic color palette; the clipped dialogue that reveals the comfort and familiarity everyone has in their professions. One touch that comes across as anachronistic is a flamboyant foray inside the wires, gadgetry, and electrons of the Internet to illustrate, using CGI, the path a hacker takes to target something. This is the kind of flashy bit you would expect from a 90s film, when the Internet and cyber attacks were still in their infancy and you could dazzle audiences by the pizzazz and “wow” effect. But it’s 2015 and we’re steeped in it. The Internet is a part of every westerner’s daily life and for anyone under age twenty-five – a pretty important demographic, they’ve hardly known a life without the Internet. So I imagine if it feels hokey to me, it must come across as downright old fogeyish to them.

Given all that, what’s left is the credulity of the plot and story. To begin with, Hathaway never really offers much in the way of such expert analysis that his help was essential. Mostly he offers the same kind of investigative insight that any detective could provide. And what about the U.S. Marshall (Holt McCallany) assigned to watch his every move? How is it that the two of them take active roles in an armed pursuit of suspects on foreign soil? Morgan Davis Foehl’s story and plot has some embarrassing moments of absurdity.

Finally, I have to comment on Mann’s use and misuse of women. It’s true that in most of his films the women have been subordinate characters to the men. They have served as creatures in danger, in need of protection. Even Miami Vice, which had some tough women, has Gong Li as the woman Colin Farrell wants to save from criminal life and a kingpin partner, and Naomie Harris as a fellow vice cop, tough as nails, who nevertheless gets taken and has to be rescued by lover Jamie Foxx. But Blackhat barely bothers to mask its women in a cloak of character-building strength. There’s Davis, to be sure, a formidable presence and actress, but she’s essentially pushed around and told what to do by the men in the film. And Lien exists purely as a love interest. It’s a thankless role and sort of insulting, not only to the actress who accepted the part, but to women everywhere.

The movie is kind of senseless and I suppose Michael Mann’s movies sometimes have that criticism hurled at them in one form or another. But I never thought he would make a dull movie.

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