Michael Mann is a true stylist and probably the last of the truly great mainstream auteurs in American filmmaking - which isn't to say Blackhat, a glossy cyber-thriller abstracted to within an inch of its life, is an openly mainstream work. At heart, this is yet another trip to the "Mannverse" of laconic, professional loners who feign cynicism better to protect their bleeding hearts, caught up in issues above their pay grade and propelled by an unspoken code of honour.
If that makes it seem as if Blackhat is "more of the same" that Mr. Mann has been exploring over the years, well, yes, it actually is "more of the same". It's just a "different" "more of the same", one that sees the director move into a more abstract, dematerialized dimension, staking out the digitally interconnected world as its primary territory.
Just like technology often "reverse engineers" a successful product to find out how it was made, so the plot of Blackhat works as a "reverse heist movie", with incarcerated hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) co-opted into a cyber-crime investigation ran in partnership between Chinese and American authorities. A mysterious "blackhat" hacker has provoked an explosion in a Chinese nuclear power station, and a meltdown in a Chicago stock market, and the code used to trigger them was hidden within another elegant piece of code Hathaway had written in his college years.
But even if the film's engine is purely digital, and reflected in the dematerialization of the central "macguffin" (from hard, actual currency to the power to twist technology to your own ends), Mr. Mann has no problems with visualizing it as a physical race against time that leads the investigative team from the US to the "new frontiers" of Asia, doing for the neons of Hong Kong and Singapore what the digital textures of Miami Vice made for Florida.
As always with Mr. Mann, this is about "old worlds" and "brave new worlds" colliding head-on with heavy fireworks, with his classic heroes shot against the always-on nocturnal skyscrapers of Hong Kong, making Blackhat a fascinating juxtaposition. On the "old side", there's a neat dovetailing between the director's traditional Melvillean (as in Jean-Pierre) worldview and the kinetic action cinema the John Woo/Tsui Hark generation produced in the 1980s. On the "new side", Blackhat pushes forward the experiments with digital photography Mr. Mann began developing around Collateral; DP Stuart Dryburgh's almost painterly approach adds a lyrical dimension to these games of life and death while pushing the image to extremes of legibility that remind often of what Jean-Luc Godard is making since the advent of digital video.
Constantly grounded in the real world but always looking towards the future, Blackhat is another sleek and thoughtful thrill machine, propelled by Mr. Mann's love of genre and storytelling; but this is no pre-cooked in-flight meal, rather sophisticated auteur cuisine where genre is just another ingredient, as is the script, the cast, the entire landscape.
Cast Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom
Director Michael Mann; screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl; cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (colour, widescreen); composers Harry Gregson-Williams, Atticus Ross and Leo Ross; designer Guy Hendrix Dyas; costumes Colleen Atwood; editors Joe Walker, Stephen Rivkin, Jeremiah O'Driscoll and Mako Kamitsuna; effects supervisors John Nelson and Phil Brennan; producers Thomas Tull, Mr. Mann and Jon Jashni; production companies Legendary Pictures Productions, Forward Pass and Blue Light Productions
Screened January 14th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)