“Style over substance” is not generally a criticism that sticks to Michael Mann, a singular voice among directors for his unique take on suspense and action. Though there is no shortage of machine gun fire and high speed chases in his films, Mann gives equal weight to small moments of tension or introspection, gorgeous scenery and finding value in the emotional weight of gunfights as well as the physical speed of bullets. For Mann, the style is the substance, and it’s what keeps audiences returning to his best films (Heat, Collateral, Manhunter) more times than the same story told by a different director might otherwise have inspired.
Mann’s newest film—cyber-thriller Blackhat—is now the third in a row (Miami Vice, Public Enemies) where his distinctive and normally effective trademarks have failed to overcome murky, muddled plots and uninspired action sequences. Yet while Miami Vice and Public Enemies were chiefly guilty of misapplication of his famous flair, Blackhat sees it so liberally and gratuitously applied over the vaguest of plots that it feels more like an extended trailer for a Michael Mann film than an actual Michael Mann film.
A series of hacks on a nuclear facility in China and a stock exchange in the U.S. puts the frenemies on the same side in hunting the perpetrator down. Chris Hemsworth plays imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway, whose bafflingly studly pecs and confusing accent are recruited by his former MIT roommate and current cybercrime investigator for mainland China, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom of Lust, Caution), as they wrote the code as youths that the attacker is now employing. During their globetrotting pursuit, Hathaway and Dawai are joined by FBI agents Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany), as well as Dawai’s sister Lien (Wei Tang, also of Lust, Caution) who immediately falls in love with Hathaway apparently out of screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl’s inability to conceive of a single other emotion she might feel.
Though Mann’s eye for nighttime cityscapes is never disappointing, there are so many long stretches where nothing in particular happens that one could be forgiven for thinking that Terrence Malick served as second unit director. Mann’s excitement and passion for vistas borders on erotic, which is fine and even fun to watch, but then when something actually erotic is happening (e.g. sex between people who we’re told love each other), everything becomes strangely detached. At one point Dawai comments that he’s never seen his sister happier. It would have been nice if we could have seen that too.
Some of the action is rewarding, but obscured by an uneven visual style that makes it seem like the film was released prematurely before editing was completed. The gunfights look good, but carry on at length without instilling much fear for the consequences; a scene where Hathaway attempts to find a Wi-Fi signal is genuinely more exciting than the longest shoot-out. Minor characters are given heroic deaths, while major characters die suddenly and unceremoniously. Its attempts at being computer literate are admirable and the portrayal of hacking as relying as much on confidence games as on tech savvy is well done, but c’mon, under no circumstances should anyone stretch their suspension of disbelief to the point where the idea becomes acceptable that an NSA bigwig would download a strange PDF sent over e-mail and enter his top secret password information.
In this month of Oscar-nominated stragglers and bottom of the barrel, we-made-it-so-we-have-to-release-it trash, Blackhat is neither the worst nor the best choice out there. While it is certainly better than his past two films, and it features much of the stylistic techniques that made Michael Mann’s work famous, Blackhat is not the return to form we’d like to see from the director of Heat.
Playing this week
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
The Wedding Ringer
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX