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by Brett Gallman

"Mann hacks into the void."
4 stars

“Blackhat” is a film that demands to be considered exclusively in terms of its director. It’s such a Michael Mann Movie that you wonder if the 71-year-old filmmaker is even concerned with appealing to an audience; mostly, it feels like he’s conversing with himself to figure out how his usual thematic and aesthetic preoccupations work within the theater of a globe-hopping cyber-warfare movie. The result is Mann’s “Quantum of Solace:” a film that’s vast and intimate all at once as it contemplates connections amidst a hail of gunfire and car bombs.

Connections are on Mann’s mind immediately, as evidenced by a stunning prelude that imagines the world as a digital sandbox. A camera swoops in from space, taking viewers from a god’s-eye view of the planet to a microcosmic roller coaster ride through a series of motherboards, mainframes, and cables. The science is dubious, but it makes for a chilling rendering of hacking—with the world so interconnected, we’re subject to the whims of information snaking and meandering through cyberspace. In this case, the trail ends with the explosion of a nuclear reactor in China, an act of terrorism that prompts the Chinese government to partner with the United States to track down the hacker responsible for the attack.

Such global stakes suggest “Blackhat” is Mann’s biggest, most ambitious film to date, a globe-spanning thriller with the fate of the free world in the balance. And yet, Mann doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in saving the world—as always, he’s more invested in hovering around his characters, particularly the professionals involved. The reactor’s meltdown is an inciting incident in the purest form, existing only to wind up a set of characters to be observed within a serpentine plot that becomes increasingly incidental as Mann’s camera peers into intimate corners.

As the plot expands, his gaze contracts and fixes itself on a trio of characters: Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a government agent who becomes China’s liaison to America, his sister and systems analyst Chen Lien (Wei Tang), and Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), Dawai’s old MIT roommate currently doing time for previous hacking exploits.

The latter is an almost preposterous figure: an absurdly chiseled mastermind who reads Foucault between doing push-ups, Hathaway is Mann’s platonic ideal: a hard but sensitive man with a code easily summarized by a few sentences. That he literally works in code almost seems too perfect. Hemsworth’s low-key, brooding turn harmonizes well with Mann’s moody, contemplative style, which—as it often does—has the effect of causing characters to recede into the background as part of his tableau. His movies are about people, but they’re also about spaces.

Here, the people feel like avatars often confined to tight spaces, their concerns (such as the budding romance between Hathaway and Lien) perfunctory and reduced to minute gestures, like a stealthy glance in the backseat of a car. The battlefield spans continents, yet its major theaters include grungy apartments, shady Koreatown dives, and dingy tunnels. Cyberspace only has the effect of shrinking the world into a more rigorous crucible capable of squeezing his characters to small moments—even someone’s death throes become a brief, haunting blur in the glow of an incandescent skyline. “Blackhat” moves from one space to the next with an escalating sense of urgency that isn’t reflected so much in its characters or its plot but rather in its own rush to resolve itself: what, really, does all of this mean for Mann?

After all, this isn’t the film he’s been waiting to make his entire life—it’s simply the ones he’s already made during the past three decades, here remixed as a familiar compilation of synth and neon. “Blackhat” pulses to electronic rhythms, its score punctuated by keyboard strokes and automatic gunfire that are often indistinguishable from each other. Server rooms glow with malice, shadowing the characters in a neon-noir aesthetic; outside, purple skies glower as a constant breeze swells.

As has especially been the case since Mann’s move to digital photography, these proceedings hang over the edge of some inevitable doom, with a slight shade of unreality coloring each frame. The climax features an otherworldly confrontation between Hathaway and his mark (Yorick van Wageningan) set against the backdrop of a parade, where the two take their inevitable place as two bodies destined for a visceral collision.

The inexorable violence functions as a grace note amongst Mann’s other oft-explored themes that recur here: Hathaway and his crew (headed by a ferocious Viola Davis) are manhunters looking to capture an ever-elusive psychopath (if he can even be described like that—Sadak is such a completely detached non-entity that he represents the banality of evil more than anything else), all the while dancing around the line between law and crime.

For Mann, this purgatory is a safe haven that allows him to explore how this line has been ruthlessly smudged in this new phase of war. “Blackhat” might feature the verve and the surface-level concerns of an average season of “24,” but, in Mann’s hands, the material becomes more existential. Characters find themselves on both sides of screens as both voyeurs and the observed, the hackers and the hacked in a tangle of connections leading to bursts of corresponding violence in the real world: a dining room scuffle, a car plunging through a building, or a knife-fight in a crowded square.

Even the violence seems like a secondary concern, though—it’s not until the film’s closing minutes that you realize Mann has constructed a collection of spaces and characters that collapses upon itself in a more metaphysical manner. He’s been playing cops and robbers his entire career, and the title "Blackhat" evokes both hacker lingo and the Western genre, only this frontier is composed of 1s and 0s. Notably, there are no contrasting white hats, and its hero doesn't walk off into the sunset; instead, he strolls into the oblivion, seemingly unaware that he’s still trapped within the screens that continue to surveil him.

If “Blackhat” is a techno-paranoia thriller, then it’s most suspicious that all these connections—including the ones we form with other human beings—aren’t really leading anywhere. At best, they’re destructive; at worst, they’re steering us into a wall of impenetrable white noise.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26880&reviewer=429
originally posted: 01/19/15 00:09:49
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User Comments

9/26/15 mr.mike Flick is just OK but Hemsworth was damn good in it. 3 stars
1/25/15 Bob Dog Wacky film that knows it's wacky - - Styl-a-rific!!!! 3 stars
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  16-Jan-2015 (R)
  DVD: 12-May-2015


  DVD: 12-May-2015

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