(Michael Mann, 2015)
Nobody but Michael Mann could possibly have made this film.
In his later, digitally shot movies, Mann's narrative brusqueness has become something more refined and deliberate; a seemingly premeditated step towards abstraction. This echoes the visual abstraction that has always been a part of his work, but has become more pronounced since his decision to embrace new technologies. In Blackhat, exposition and character development are either rattled off in a let's-get-this-done hurry or faded out mid-dialogue; lines crucial to the plot are mumbled, figures given no time to establish who they are before they are processed through the film. And yet, to a grown-up, attentive viewer, it always make sense. I never wondered what was going on, or who was who, or why they were doing what they were doing, because Mann is such a bold, confident visual storyteller. He tells his story through sounds and images. The meltdown at a Chinese Nuclear plant, so crucial to the plot, is depicted, thrillingly, without any dialogue whatsoever. In this sequence, Mann shows us how information flows across a network between computers with dizzying tracking shots across the landscapes of hard drive interiors, where data washes over his speeding camera like a wave, the whole thing resembling nothing so much as an action scene from Tron. This is pure cinema, and it is wonderful.
The story traces the efforts of a small team of American and Chinese agents to find and capture a "blackhat" computer hacker responsible for that meltdown and some financial market chaos in the US. To this end they recruit Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a jailed hacker and college roommate to the Chinese Commander of the operation, Chen Dewai (Wang Leehom). Hathaway soon proves his worth as they follow the trail from America to Hong Kong and Jakarta as the stakes grow increasingly higher.
In some ways, this plays like a compendium of Mann's tropes and obsessions. There are images, plot points, and characterisations here familiar from his other films, even a few phrases hardcore fans will recognise ("That's what you're doing, isn't it, you son of a bitch?"). The themes are a constant. He has always addressed the difficulties of communication in the modern world, and likes to contrast that idea with a romance which is instinctual and near-wordless. In Blackhat, Hathaway and Chen's sister Lien (Tang Wei) conduct a courtship composed chiefly of glances and gestures before they end up in bed together. This - like much of the material in Mann's universe - is the stuff of deepest cliche, and yet Mann does it so well, and with such earnest poetry, it is impossible not to be compelled by it. A sequence here of Hathaway noticing the details of Lien's beauty as they travel together to a meet is beautifully evocative and detailed - Mann is one of modern cinema's great sensualists, and moments like this one recall Wong Kar-Wai.
This film is filled with such moments. If this director is celebrated as a visual stylist, it is with good reason. Few filmmakers have directed architecture as well, and here he captures cites in spare, devastatingly beautiful shots, yet is generally more interested in the faces and bodies of his cast. Hemsworth is all swagger with a hint of melancholy, and as such is perfect for this part, and his chemistry with Tang Wei gives their romance a charge and grip which is crucial in the final act. Viola Davis does an awful lot with a small but crucial role and the way Mann stages and shoots her last scene is beautiful.
That is the thing about Mann; he makes a film like this, about the cold violence and loneliness of the modern world (among other things), and he makes it look ravishing. His use of digital tools allows for a new sort of cinematic beauty, one no other director has really grappled with yet - the halogen glare of a highway at night, the glitter of a cityscape at sundown, the murk of dawn through apartment blinds. And then of course, is his way with action. Blackhat is, after all, an action film. And he retains that ability to immerse us in the action, starting with a fistfight in a Koreatown restaurant, shot the same way he handled a few of the fights in the magnificent Ali - the camera so close to the combatants it judders with impact, and continuing through a handful of blistering gunfights in various urban spaces that are terrifyingly visceral and brutal.
Through all this we stay close to Hathaway, another in a long line of Mann's existential romantic heroes, and though this narrative has been hugely refined, all inessentials removed in favour of textures and poetic detail, it is still gripping and moving, still more intelligent than most American cinema ever dares contemplate. Mann occupies that blessed spot where the multiplex meets the arthouse, which is why his films so often flirt with commercial failure, and also partly why they are so impressive.
Blackhat isn't quite the perfect statement of Heat or the late masterpiece of Miami Vice, but it isn't far off, either.