First, a confession. I have been a fan of Michael Mann’s work since I saw his excellent existential thriller Collateral in the cinema in 2004. I find his films often beautiful, powerfully emotional and thoroughly exciting. The equally enthralling text and subtext of Collateral plus LA at night, the emotion behind the line ‘Stay alive’ in Last of the Mohicans, the hand clutch at the end of Heat, Al Pacino talking on a phone on the beach in dawn in The Insider, the romanticism and trust in Miami Vice, the omniscience of the scene in which Graham puts everything together in Manhunter (probably the closest thing to God in Mann’s cinema). Add to this the mix of clean and dirty imagery and the mix of film and digital, the near abstraction of the action sequences from Manhunter through to now – and I have already mentioned his filming of cities at night but it bears repeating as he is a master at it.
Blackhat was unceremoniously dumped into the UK DVD market, without advertising and without much attention – though there have been some great pieces. The story is of a computer hacker who almost causes a meltdown in a nuclear reactor in China and then a stock market shock in America. No one can find the hacker, except maybe Nick Hathaway (played by Liam Hemsworth), who has been imprisoned for hacking a number of big banks. A joint Chinese-American investigation lead by Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) and FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) get Hathaway released and they go to work, alongside Chen’s sister Lien (Tang Wei).
The film begins well with images of the world barely recognisable because the lights of all the technology we have surrounded ourselves in. This gives way to an awkward dramatization of the hacker’s assault on the nuclear plant’s cooling system. This sequence is especially difficult as it is long-winded and overblown and also displays an extensive use of CGI unseen before from Mann. The rest of the film’s opening act is little better, ultimately, with a ‘the only man who can help us is in prison and we need to get him out’ storyline familiar from too many bad films, a lot of set-up and a lot of people walking into rooms and logging onto computers. Hathaway, when he is released, will go into a room and log in before he has checked out the rest of the room properly. The film is initially too focussed on computing (and, hence, to my mind, story) to allow a way in for the audience and there are only rare instances of emotion. One such moment, when Hathaway has just been released and lingers on an airport runway to look out at some not particularly pleasant scenery is taut with an ambiguity that only speaks to the character’s inner thoughts, thoughts we never get to know. When you have just come out of prison, you’ll find grace in the ‘nothing new’, as Beckett called it.
Even the inevitable blossoming of a romance between Hathaway and Lien Chen is unconvincing as we have so far spent more time with the tech around the characters than with the characters themselves. Compare this to the equally sudden but much more convincing romance in Miami Vice which departs entirely from the plot and the taut pacing of the film, giving a breather that allows us to know these characters and believe more in their love. In Miami Vice it was a sincere and deeply romantic moment, whereas here it speaks more of recurrent thematic concerns shoehorned in where there was no space for development. This, to me, was the ultimate proof that the film was not working.
And yet, the film does improve. A couple of action sequences are thrilling, a camaraderie develops between the group, more time is devoted to making the romance make sense, the stakes are raised convincingly and those quiet, usually neon-lit moments that we see in all of Mann’s films make a return. The film is less rushed and while there remain scenes of people sitting around computers and talking about what is happening rather than doing something about it, the film nonetheless moves at a good clip. And where before the images were of muddy CGI hard drives, it now becomes a film of cities at night and hurried movement and slow, sad introspection and that typical Mann score. Two moments – one in which the camera is practically on someone’s back as our heroes rush through houses and alleys and another in which Hathaway and Lien fly off to Jakarta – are thrilling and beautiful and neither moment would have been captured by anyone else.
One might blame the subject matter (which requires a lot of looking at computers and a villain that has to remain invisible throughout the majority of the film, losing much of that interplay between hero and villain in most of Mann’s other work) or one can even blame the fact that the film was watched in the daytime on DVD in a sitting room – hardly the best way to view a Mann for the first time. Blackhat feels like a film that would require a second viewing, but as it is for the moment, it is a well-made, well-performed, beautifully shot thriller which problematically takes its time getting going but when it works, it is a worthy Mann. Not great, in other words, but a film deserving a second chance.