‘Blackhat’ and the Virtues of Style Over Substance

A ridiculously attractive, ethnically diverse law-enforcement team glides across a runway in almost-slow motion, clad in sunglasses and slick duds. They’re all stubborn hard cases, but their bristly tension will eventually give way, and they’ll grow to like, respect, and rely on each other. Their dialogue exchanges are sparse and lingo-heavy (“RAT,” “backdoor,” “payload”); the score that accompanies them is minimalist and atmospheric. Their visages are captured with a digital sheen that occasionally veers into a smear; the close-ups are tight, with a faint handheld jitter. Yes, after going MIA for five-and-a-half years, we have a new Michael Mann film. Welcome back, sir. What the hell took you so long?

The film in question is Blackhat, and let’s get this outta the way from the jump: its story, and much of its script, is both ludicrous and stock. A ruthless hacker has used the aforementioned “RAT” (Remote Access Tool) to work his way into seemingly impenetrable systems, first causing a meltdown at a Chinese power plant, then manipulating the stock market. The Chinese and American intelligence agents working cooperatively to catch that hacker realize — all together now — they’ll have to use a hacker to catch a hacker, so they bring in Nicholas Hathaway, an imprisoned computer genius with the brain of Zuckerberg and the body of Chris Hemsworth. He bargains his consulting gig into a get-out-of-jail free card, and off we go.

Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis in "Blackhat"

Blackhat’s mid-January release date looks like a red flag; after all, not a lot of high-quality cinema gets exiled to this early-winter doldrums, and Mann’s last six pictures (Public Enemies, Miami Vice, Collateral, Ali, The Insider, and Heat) all premiered in far more reputable summer and fall slots. Was Universal burying a bomb? You might think so from the negative reviews thus far, which have gone after the picture with mean-spirited viciousness — mostly complaining that it’s dull, or silly, or riddled with clichés.

Look, Mann is either your brand of vodka or he isn’t. Among film fans, he seems to inspire either shrugging dismissal or cult-like devotion — and while I hadn’t considered myself part of the latter camp (his last two films are wildly problematic), I’ll confess that I found even Blackhat’s filler scenes thrilling. He luxuriates in a mien of cool, coasting confidently from one terse scene and charged dialogue exchange to the next (early 2016 For Your Consideration: Viola Davis asking “Am I being tangible?”). Complaints about narrative clichés — and seriously, a movie is not defined by its clichés, but what it does with them — and visual crutches miss the point; this is not a film about tight plotting or slam-bang action, but about style. Pure, hypnotic, mesmerizing style.

Still image from "Blackhat"

Maybe I’ve just had Hitchcock on the brain lately, but it’s worth comparing the two filmmakers’ MOs, as both have a recurring set of thematic and visual motifs, and both are less interested in plot as motor than as a clothesline from which to hang set pieces. There’s a wonderful moment in Blackhat where Hathaway is telling his sad story to his new lady love, and Mann just fades the damn thing out — it’s like he’s acknowledging both the need for a backstory, and his lack of interest in what said backstory actually is. He takes other risks as well, delaying payoffs, abbreviating relationships, scrambling the narrative in the third act with an audience-clobbering, outta-left-field shoot-out. It may not all work (the romance is perfunctory, it’s too heavy on silly zip-through-the-computer-wires-and-circuits CG work, and it’s too damn long), but at least it’s distinctive.

Which is to say there’s never a moment’s doubt that Mann is making his film exactly the way he wants to, and by the time the credits rolled, this viewer was less convinced that Universal shipped Blackhat off to January because it was bad than because they just didn’t know what the hell it was. It’s packaged like a cyber-thriller, but it plays more like a slow-boil character study, and often looks less like a studio action movie than an experimental film. Whatever it is, it isn’t typical Hollywood fare; it’s an auteur-driven oddity that zigs when most movies zag. And if that isn’t worth celebrating in the current, stiflingly boring mainstream moment, I don’t know what it is.

Blackhat is out today in wide release.