Even on his worst day Michael Mann can run circles around nearly every other director working today. His frenetic set pieces and gorgeously fluid camera movements; his spacious framing and brilliantly choreographed editing rhythms; his ability to wring tension from subtle shifts in point-of-view and to establish relationships through an exchange of glances; these are the trademarks of a long-running career resulting in two of the great films of the 1980s (Thief and Manhunter); two more in the ‘90s (Heat and The Insider); and then, in 2001, Ali, whose stunning opening sequence continues to thrill.
Since he began working in high-definition video with Collateral, his last three films — Miami Vice, Public Enemies and now Blackhat, finally out on DVD and VOD after a throwaway theatrical release in early January — have attempted to synthesize an almost meta-obsession with the medium’s glassine textures into a pulse-pounding, good guy vs. bad guy format. The emotional range of these films has thinned, but the action scenes continue to pack a mercurial jolt.
Blackhat, like Mann's last four pictures, will play better on a second viewing. At first this tale of high-stakes cyber-terrorism comes across as daft. Characters seem to be talking in code, the jargon spewing past meaning into a stew of gibberish. A brilliant hacker, played with eye-candied stoicism by Chris Hemsworth, is paroled from prison to help foil the nefarious world domination plans — or something like that — of a Goldfinger-esque villain. His mission takes him into exotic Southeast Asian locales where chases, shoot-outs, and rapid typing on keyboards ensue. The dialogue is either mumbled or buried under a soundscape of electronica, gunfire, explosions and crowd noise.
It all seems like nonsense except for the fact that the film looks fantastic, with its inky streaks of black, smears of gold, flashes of primary blues, reds and greens; its dazzling strokes of handheld camera pans and tilts; its jostled, packed frames injected with odd, arresting angles that look like they’re shot with a Go Pro strapped to the cameraman’s torso. Everything that happens on screen feels spontaneous, as if the camera is reacting to a world run amok with high-tech sabotage, a world answering only to the binary abstractions of cyberspace.
Michael Mann is like a cinematic action painter, attempting to express a purely physical response to an uncontainable reality. Blackhat is his splattered canvas. Look at it twice, three times; turn it upside down; stand back and then get close. After awhile, it starts to makes sense, even though you don’t know what you’re looking at.
This picture is not even close to Michael Mann on his best day. The movie’s plot is preposterous as well as incomprehensible, the acting is serviceable at best and Mann seems to have lost interest in relationships, in articulating the grace notes that bond men of action together or force them to leave the women in their lives (one of the many pleasures of Heat). But to watch this filmmaker flex his conceptual muscles, even on a bizarre experiment like Blackhat, is to realize that there is still one big time American director refusing to play it safe.
This review originally appeared on The Restless Critic.