Danny Bowes

Film & TV critic and journalist, novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter.

BLACKHAT: A REVIEW

The following was originally posted to my now-defunct Letterboxd account, now here by sort-of popular demand. For what it's worth I actually would give it an even better notice now that I've seen it again: 

The one concession, such as it is, that this sermon gives to anyone outside the choir--a warning that this is not a movie that follows the rules of ordinary movies, and that its aims are high--is in the opening sequence, where the electrical impulse given off by a keystroke is traced physically through circuitry, in a VFX sequence that (ironically, as it turns out) resembles Bowman's trip through the monolith in 2001. The reversal here is that where that's the point in Kubrick's film where humanity completes the process of evolution by leaving behind their physical bodies, Michael Mann uses this sequence to fully and emphatically emphasize the physical.

That's what's so great about Blackhat. It's an intensely physical movie, where grainy digital cinematography and almost wholly abstract editing yield sensory reactions. Intellectually it does not parse well; the script treatment (some bullshit about hacking nuclear power plants and the stock market where Only One Man can type fast enough to prevail) is something someone's dad could have written after snorting an 8-ball off an AOL CD-ROM in 1997. The flesh on the script's bones, on the other hand, is all that is Mann: terse exchanges of cool-sounding dialogue, reams on end of stuff like-- 

EXT. AIRFIELD: DAWN
A half dozen OWNAGE GODS stride slowly in expensive casual wear and immaculate sunglasses. They say nothing, merely lighting their universe as the sun.

--and so on. But all stylishness aside, the characters are still doing things that don't track logically in any recognizable way, that are not reproducible in a rational universe. This is something to which I resigned myself almost as soon as the movie started.

And yet the whole is so gorgeous and sensual, such a red-blooded bestial thing that a straight representation of naturalistic reality or even a conventional riff on genre thriller conventions hardly seems to be the point of this enterprise. What character development there is is perfunctory to the point of being humorous, and yet the movie replaces that assumed requirement for involvement with a brutally efficient and obsessively detailed use of montage and sound. That the dialogue deliberately drops out during certain scenes is but another cue: watch this differently.

Meeting Blackhat on its own terms is quite the experience. Chris Hemsworth may look less like a hacker than the guy who kicks sand in a hacker's face at the beach, but his gorilla-like physical presence never ceases to compel. The way he cradles Tang Wei's face and body to comfort her is fascinating, more ape than man. And of course when it comes to beating the shit out of guys, Hemsworth is well up to the task. He is, after all, Thor.

The violence, long a Michael Mann trademark, is fantastic, and as always employing sound as an essential element. The sound of the gunshots in Michael Mann gunplay movies (especially of late) is always a synecdoche of the movie as a whole: in Collateral the startling loudness reflects Jamie Foxx's lack of familiarity with the milieu in which gunfights are de rigueur, the more muted tones of the bullets in Miami Vice (2006) are of a piece with the numbness Crockett and Tubbs feel at being so deep undercover they need to check which way is up. In Blackhat there's a fullness to the gunshots that revels in the multiple different kinds of metal involved in the process of firing a gun, from sliding up into the chamber from the magazine, ejected from the barrel by the hammer, and finally (to drive the point home) slamming into the metal objects behind which the target takes cover. Emphasizing the physical process of the gunshot emphasizes the physical nature of the film as a whole: Blackhat is a movie you feel with your body rather than stand aside and perceive with your mind.

But as alluded in the introductory paragraph, this is not the movie that's going to get you into Michael Mann if you aren't already in the choir, nodding enthusiastically as he holds forth with divine images of unsmiling people in sunglasses with guns, occasionally murmuring a ""Hallelujah"" in response. If you're already onboard, though, this is one absolute motherfucker of a ride.

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