Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” – A harbinger of doom for spy cinema

Poster for "Blackhat"

I must admit, when the FilmWonk Podcast reconvened after the New Year to review Inherent Vice, and I found myself uttering phrases like “trenchant statement on post-war masculinity,” I was a bit concerned that the wondrous, cinematic wasteland that is the first month of the year might fail to deliver its full measure of seasonal stupidity. Vice may have been a holdover from an awards-qualifying run in NY and LA, but it is still a January release, and January releases are supposed to be dumb and terrible.

On that count, Michael Mann‘s Blackhat did not disappoint – it is incredibly stupid at times. But what was truly baffling about this film was just how much it got right. Out of the gate, its treatment of 21st century hacking was pretty much spot-on. Screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl uses many real tricks – undiscovered (zero-day) exploits that abuse the autorun features of USB thumbdrives, attacks targeting industrial control systems that have the capability to both physically destroy their mechanized targets, and hide any sign of their malicious activity from safety monitoring software until the destruction can’t be stopped. All of these things are real (even if they tend to operate a bit more slowly and less publicly in real life) – and the irony of duplicating Stuxnet as a cinematic attack on both the US and China was not lost on me. And the film also remembers the best old tricks. Social engineering is by far the most resilient hack – the easiest way to get into a system in an unauthorized fashion is to convince a silly, flawed, Mark-1 human being to let you in.

But for all that it got right technologically, this film was an utter failure as a coherent piece of cinema. It attempted to apply a 20th century espionage formula to a 21st century technological crisis. As criminal superhacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and his network engineer-cum-Bond girl, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), jaunt across the globe through multiple countries, physically chasing after a hacker who quite realistically operates from a single location behind seven proxies, my mind was abruptly drawn to the abysmal 2014 comedy, Sex Tape. Like that film, Blackhat never escapes the nonsensical logic of physically chasing errant data around the real world. But it might have worked, if only its every attempt to depict a realistic human interaction or relationship hadn’t fallen so flat.

Bless these actors, they tried hard to make this weak material work. Viola Davis steals the movie in several scenes as FBI supervisor Carol Barrett, but is criminally underused, and the film’s few attempts at humanizing her – as well as US Marshal Jessup (Holt McCallany) – were clunky in the moment, and embarrassing in retrospect. Even Hemsworth and Tang try their best to make their contrived romance succeed, and a few times, their half-decent chemistry almost makes it happen. But the worst thing about this romance is that it could easily have been buoyed with a single line of dialogue. Hathaway’s old friend from MIT, Chinese military cyber-commando Dawai Chen (Leehom Wang), is Lien’s brother, and is solely responsible for getting the two of them involved in the film. Rather than saddle Tang with awkward meet-cute lines, it would’ve been a simple enough matter to simply give the two of them some prior relationship. But the film seems content to let Hemsworth’s abs do the talking when it comes to the plausibility of their torrid affair, then proceeds to take it far too seriously.

Still from "Blackhat"

In fact, the film’s self-seriousness really becomes a problem as it becomes bizarrely, graphically violent. There are some well-choreographed sequences of hand-to-hand combat and marvelously staged gunfights in this film, each more out of place than the last. Hathaway inexplicably morphs from imprisoned hacker to improvisational super-soldier in minutes, dispatching enemies with chairs and tables, handguns, and prison-fu with alarming speed and capability. Meanwhile, Lien changes from a network engineer (who does zero network engineering) to a bizarre fantasy construct that’s equal parts spy, nurse, and helpless arm-candy. Bond meets girl. And the tone is obscene.

In keeping with Mann’s devotion to every advance in digital cinema, this really is a gorgeous film, even if it does little to justify the majority of its scenery. At one point, the power-couple takes a trip to Middle-of-Nowhere, Malaysia to solve the villain’s master plan. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that it was a breathtaking location, their presence was superfluous, and the ensuing dialogue provoked audible laughter in my auditorium. And what’s more, the film bizarrely jumps to the duo sifting through code and financial records in a hotel room moments later, redundantly solving the mystery in a much more realistic manner. The grand finale continues the film’s descent into ultraviolent madness. We know what the bad guys are up to – time to go kill them. And if the laughter in the previous scene wasn’t audible enough, it certainly resonated as Hemsworth donned his prisonesque arsenal – sharpened screwdrivers concealed about his person, and torso armor composed of magazines and duct tape. I wish I were making this up, and if the film didn’t devolve into a level of Assassin’s Creed (with inexplicably unresponsive AI from the crowd NPCs), I might have credited it with a bit of self-awareness.

But Blackhat – Hathaway – is no hero. And its awkward, genre-straddling attempts to merge globetrotting spycraft with virtual warfare do not bode well for the genre as a whole. You can’t have a Western with automobiles, and you can’t have a Bond film with realistic hackers and semi-realistic violence. Might be best to stick with the magical Skyfall nonsense next time.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

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One thought on “Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” – A harbinger of doom for spy cinema

  1. Pingback: 2015 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2015) | FilmWonk

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