The other day, I was listening to an old episode of the habitually excellent podcast Travis Bickle on the Riviera when hosts Sean Witzke and Tucker Stone started discussing Michael Mann’s most recent film Blackhat. I’d recommend listening to the episode to hear their discussion about it, but over the course of that discussion, they brought up a really fascinating point about great filmmakers. They both enjoyed the movie, but spoke of being excited to watch it again because Mann belongs to the rarified group of masterful filmmakers whose work can change over repeated viewings; Miami Vice being a particularly potent example.
Prior to this, the notion of me ever watching Blackhat again was something I’d hold more akin to a farcical punishment than a willing endeavor, but like anyone else on Earth, I’m wrong basically all of the time.
I hated Blackhat when I saw it in the theater. I’d been excited to see it if for no other reason than it was a new Michael Mann movie, but it looked promising. Solid cast, intriguing premise, exotic locales, violence. Any one of those is a potentially solid building block to an enjoyable film, but I walked out as the credits rolled feeling dejected, confused, and ultimately let down. While commiserating with the only person I knew in Portland who had actually seen the film, I said that it felt like watching a movie made by a robot trying to learn how to be human.
The dialogue felt terse, the pacing and inside baseball trappings of the story made it a formless, messy trudge, and the performances had the resonance and elasticity of a box of cereal. And I’m not usually the kind to pick apart a story while I’m watching it or scream about plot holes, but the events that unfolded in the film were distractingly convoluted. My greatest fears about Blackhat were confirmed and I had another Michael Mann film I didn’t like; an addition to the late period void in a filmography that used to stand as a library of holy texts to me.
So it was with a kind of resigned curiosity that I decided to give it another shot. Worst case scenario: my original findings are confirmed, rest easy. Best case scenario: another Michael Mann film to enjoy, some perceptions and judgments rightfully challenged, unimpeachable personal growth, and glory.
Lo and behold, it only took about twenty minutes before I had a strange, thrilling thought. “Damn. This is actually pretty great.” I sat back and watched the rest of the film, pleased to have a slightly expanded canon (I’m resisting calling it a Mannon, for now). What was once a muddy, tone-deaf chore now felt like a stylish, globe-trotting adventure. But how? What had changed? What had I failed to notice or account for the first time around?
The answer to all of those questions is, of course, Michael Mann.
I’d made the mistake of watching Blackhat under the guise of it being a film made by a man from 1995; a man who made Heat. This is not a movie by the man who made Heat. Heat may be the best crime movie ever made, but it’s twenty years old. Heat can vote and buy cigarettes.
This was something newer. Something stranger. Blackhat’s virtue is embodied in its implausibilities, which like Indonesian tin, can take some mining to get to.
One goes into a Michael Mann film knowing that whatever they’re about to see what painstakingly researched and vetted for authenticity. There are the famous stories that attest to this from behind the scenes of Mann films. Tom Cruise spent a day delivering packages only disguised by a baseball cap totally unnoticed by their recipients to experience an assassin’s ability to blend into a crowd for Collateral. By the time Heat’s legendary shootout was filmed, Val Kilmer could reportedly change out a spent magazine on his submachine gun faster than the S.W.A.T. team members who had instructed him. According to some, footage of him doing so is still used in official instructions by some S.W.A.T. teams. For Miami Vice, the former undercover agents Mann paired with Colin Farrell to get into character actually staged a meeting with a suspicious criminal, who drew a gun on Farrell and accused him of being undercover.
They didn’t tell him it was all a setup until the next day.
Those are all entertaining anecdotes, but the point is that there was a time where if you were paying attention in the ramp up, you went into a Michael Mann film expecting, if not craving, a deep well of authenticity to accompany the super-cool, stylized action. The marketing leading up to Blackhat’s release touted the involvement of a lot of cyber security and intelligence experts and cited some recent high-profile breaches as inspiration and foundation for the film’s story. All of this would lead one to believe they’re walking into a carefully considered examination of the fragility of security in the digital age.
But that movie wouldn’t have Chris Hemsworth beating someone half to death with a table in it.
Michael Mann already made Heat, and The Insider, and Last of the Mohicans. He has enough research cred under his belt to choke a librarian, so it’s understandable that he seems to have lost interest in making those films again.
Thus, Blackhat is (or was) a glimpse new Michael Mann. Mann Prime. A filmmaker who has transcended a pedestrian reality. Miami Vice was a taste of it, but a lot of the insanity of that movie is baked into the plot. If two undercover guys are going to look like convincing high-level drug traffickers, that’s going to require the occasional go-fast boat. Blackhat takes the hyper-stylish action of Miami Vice and strips it of having any adherence to a commonly-accepted reality.
Does doing a set of inverted frustration pushups against a jail wall explain why a hacker looks like he’s been eating boiled chicken by the barnfull and deadlifting small cars? No, it doesn’t. But it looks cool. Does it make sense that the same hacker also appears to have major facility for Israeli martial arts, improvised weaponry, and marksmanship under duress? No, it doesn’t. But it looks really cool. It also looks cool if the guy is sporting a $15,000 watch and a Rodeo Drive haircut fresh out of the federal clink while he’s dispatching mercenaries with lethal precision. It looks cool as hell, in fact.
And ultimately, that’s what makes Blackhat a really engaging film and what eluded me the first time I watched it. It’s Image Comics circa 1993. Everything is dialed up a notch, reality be damned. There are a thousand actors that could make a film about a hacker compelling, but none of them look like they start every day by ripping a stack of phonebooks in half.
That’s not to disparage Hemsworth’s acting, though. He does a solid job and pays something of a tribute to James Caan’s classic performance in Mann’s Thief. The supporting cast is as solid as any other Mann picture, too. Great actors like Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis, John Ortiz, Richie Coster, and Holt McCallany populate Blackhat.
Their dialogue seems terse and a waste on its accompished speakers initially, but the second time around, it’s clear that in Mann’s new hyperreality, everybody talks on a need-to-know basis. Speaking isn’t about personality in this movie, it’s about conveying information. It’s a movie full of Michael Claytons. People telling other people what’s happening, where they’re going, and what they’re going to do when they get there. It feels cold at first, but in a world where everyone goes only by last names and a computer expert also appears to have won the All Prisons Intramural Stabbing Championships five years running, why wouldn’t everything be a mission briefing?
Fittingly, there are some great action sequences and set pieces in this film. Locales that are probably new additions to American cinema are filmed in stark, interesting ways, seemingly with little reliance on forgiving additional lights or custom-built set elements. Those craving authenticity will find some purchase in the orange halos of Chinese street lamps or the lunar landscape of the Indonesian desert.
Is Blackhat a great movie? Probably not. But, it’s worth watching. It’s evidence of a filmmaker who has created truly legendary work attempting to evolve and supersede the genre definitions he helped create, and there’s a great deal of merit in that. Anybody willing to flip tables over at 72 warrants a second look at the very least.
I purposely kept this piece light on plot details because judging by its take at the box office, you didn’t see Blackhat. I get that. It didn’t look like a very hospitable situation when it came out and there hasn’t been a lot of evidence to contrary since.
But I would tell you dear reader, you and your finely honed cinematic instincts might be wrong; and sometimes, wrongness should be celebrated.
I should know. I’m wrong all the time.