16 July 2017

Review: Blackhat

(Dir: Michael Mann, 2015)

Michael Mann is one of those directors to whom you sit up and pay attention when they release something new. It's not as if he's a genius auteur or anything, but he has a habit of making interesting films, preoccupied with the part of men's souls that drives them to either journey right to the edge in order to stop someone they perceive is doing wrong, or continue unwaveringly down the path of crime with a fatalistic determination. He shoots with a stylistic eye that emphasises the starkness of reality, but in a hyper-real manner that you would never quite experience. It's equal parts jarring and intoxicating.

Two years ago he released Blackhat, his most recent exploration of these thematic areas. This time we're rooting for convicted hacker Nick Hathaway, in the shape of Chris Hemsworth, whose ability to do special things with computers has the government needing him to stop a similarly skilled individual remotely attempting real world destruction for personal gain. Nothing we haven't seen before of course, but Mann's signature style and his pacing imbues everything with energy, as we globe-trot between the US and Far East. The strong Chinese angle and attendant geopolitics helps keep things feeling a little fresher, particularly setting a lot of the film in Hong Kong. And of course you'd expect some high quality action scenes that eschew over-blown bombast (something else Mann is renowned for), which are happily received here.

Back in the mid-nineties as the internet became widespread, Hollywood latched onto the hacker angle as a new, potentially dangerous threat. It's a part of our modern world that we quickly came to accept, so when Blackhat came out it seemed a rather passé story angle. But watching again just two years later and seeing everything that's currently going on in the world, it suddenly feels more relevant. As ever, Hemsworth is very enjoyable to watch, especially the interplay with his Chinese compatriots Leehom Wang and Wei Tang (both of whom are good), but at times he doesn't always seem to fit the character. It's wrong to presume the computer geek archetype shouldn't extend to someone so physically imposing and possessing such chiseled good looks, which may be a small part of the problem and should be seen as a failing on the viewer's part rather than the casting, but such feelings also likely stem from his particularly wide skillset, especially how good he is in a fight/firefight (regardless of how that's briefly addressed when we first meet him).

Blackhat may not be up there with Mann's best – the bar is set high of course but it remains a decent watch if you're willing to overlook the flaws, much as was the case with Public Enemies and Miami Vice. He has his signature style so you know what you're getting, and he now makes films infrequently enough that you always look forward to what he'll deliver next. Even when you know a director is seemingly past their best, sometimes that just doesn't really matter.

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