Michael Mann is not an idea man. That’s Michael Keaton’s Bill in “Night Shift.” Bill is the man distracted to uselessness by his own ideas like eliminating garbage with edible paper. “You see, you eat it, it’s gone. Eat it, it’s out of there!”
Yet there is a split between ideas and the movie you watch called “Blackhat.” The division between fun and Mann’s latest arrives courtesy of a wretched screenplay, not because Mann is a more cerebral director. Whatever that means.
In “Blackhat,” Chris Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway, a skilled American hacker who is offered a chance to trade his black hat for a white one if he helps the U.S. and China stop a terrorist responsible for sabotaging a Chinese nuclear power plant and manipulating soy futures.
Though the movie begins with an animation sequence illustrating the way data travels across its “Tron”-like grid, the movie’s premise is not far from “Live Free or Die Hard” where cyber-terrorists emerge with such an omnibus threat of coding and munitions that only an ape like John McClane or a mane-clipped Thor can delete them. The villains in “Blackhat,” though, aren’t nearly as pretty as Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q.
Unlike John McClane, Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway doesn’t have the action hero’s kit charisma, further confirmation that Hemsworth’s magical hammer did a better job acting along with the magnetic Tom Hiddleston as Loki in those fluff Marvel movies.
One of those, “The Avengers” was – like “Blackhat” – shot digitally, a mode that allowed the Marvel crew to shoot any angle they wanted to, especially in the last half where the camera is hanging out somewhere in the sky staring at the computer-created destruction of the city without reference to character. Earlier in that picture, when Thor throws Loki onto the ground near a forest, the camera moves from beside Thor’s shoulder past Loki to reveal the latter is lying at the edge of a cliff. It’s a ludicrous shot because Loki is a god who just survived falling many thousands of feet from Black Widow’s aircraft anyway so another 300-foot drop is not going to hurt him. The shot’s there because it signals a fear of heights in the audience, encouraging us to transfer a mortal’s anxiety to an immortal.
The total freedom of digital filmmaking can lead to a glut of such impertinent shots, but that’s hardly an indictment against the format (there are similar examples in film). Plenty of filmmakers have ably used the digital format to improve their storytelling. David Fincher and Danny Boyle, please stand up.
Part of the technical limitations of shooting film made the selection of subject and framing an important decision because it was a costly one. With digital equipment, the outlay is less and the possibilities are there. I still consider Mann’s “Miami Vice” a terrific action movie, but the jury is still out on whether Mann’s “Public Enemies” experiment to bring a more immediate, realistic look to Dillinger’s world actually worked. And that’s a matter this jury doesn’t really want to revisit though the attempt earns much respect.
There’s no such experimentation going on in “Blackhat.” And when filmmakers like Mann or Steven Soderbergh extol the digital medium because of its affinity with capital-R realism rather than its fit to the story at hand, you should be suspicious.
Mann conveys the energy of the action scenes in “Blackhat” because of the digital camera’s mobility: Hemsworth chasing others through narrow alleys or soldiers carefully walking down through a culvert. Combined with the choreography, these action scenes are exciting to watch. And yet the digital format has not sparked – even in Mann’s hands – any new manner of shooting sexual activity beyond standard issue inserts of probing fingers, legs and moaning faces.
Most of the innovation in this movie’s action scenes was already tackled by Soderbergh in his action genre exercise, “Haywire.” And both “Haywire” and “Blackhat” are remarkably similar in their faults though the ambitions of the former are much, much higher.
At one point in “Blackhat,” one of the movie’s two principals, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), corrects an FBI cyber geek who says the terrorists’ coding is frenetic: “Frenetic or overwritten?” His quip is supposed to show his superior intelligence. It shows superiority, alright.
Most All the characters in “Blackhat” are afflicted with similarly enlarged egos in the screenwriter’s (Morgan Davis Foehl) fatuous attempt to make everyone a brilliant, nerveless badass. “Haywire” had the same problem: every single exchange between characters – whether best friends, lovers, FBI, thugs – occupies a single, absurd register where each person talks to others as an adversary (and a juvenile one, too) regardless of circumstances.
It happens whenever two characters speak to each other, especially on the telephone. It’s a movie full of bullies who mistake savagery for cleverness. Here are just a few examples of these brutes’ dialogue:
“No, this is what you’re gonna do.”
“I’m not blind. I see you two are together.”
“That’s exactly the point.”
“I’m under orders. Now so are you.”
“This doesn’t involve you.”
“Yeah, well I decide what’s for me.”
“I’m not gonna talk to a fucking bagman.”
“You’re no longer in the game.”
and my favorite…
“That’s just your scoreboard in a virtual world.”
Mann’s chief innovation in “Blackhat” is evoking its several global locations without transitions or establishing shots. Doing so theoretically quickens the movie’s pace, but unless you have a smart script to work from a la “Syriana” the action still slows to a crawl. “Blackhat” is neither frenetic or overwritten. It’s just dull.