Blackhat (2015)

Poster for Blackhat

I’m a little confused by what the release of his Michael Mann movie in the midst of the Academy Award season means. Is it really being dumped by Universal as a loser, or are they hoping to make a splash in what is usually a dead period? All indications would seem to point to the former, but I’m amazed that a Michael Mann film would be treated that way, especially one that strikes me as a solid and stylish thriller. However, it has been getting some pretty negative reviews (the Seattle Times gave it 1.5 stars), so maybe I’m out of step with general opinion here.

The movie starts with hacker attacks on a Chinese nuclear power plant and an American commodities exchange. A Chinese intelligence agent named Chen Dawai (played by Wang Leehom, whom I recognized from My Lucky Star) comes to the US to investigate and requests the release of his old college buddy, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), who is serving time for hacking into a bank. Nick and Chen wrote the code used by the terrorist hacker, and Chen argues that Nick is therefore the only one who can solve the puzzle of who the hacker is. Joined by FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and Chen’s bright and beautiful sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei, who was so impressive in Ang Lee’s Lust: Caution), they are soon jet-setting around Asia trying to track down the mysterious mastermind behind the attacks.

I suppose the characters aren’t much to write home about, but the point of this kind of thing is the intrigue, the exotic locations, and the action, all of which are handled very well. Mann uses the cyber elements to have fun with some abstract, arty imagery involving chip circuitry and representations of data and code. His shots of city architecture are moody, sleek, and densely patterned. Everything flows very smoothly and effectively, and I was reminded at times of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The frequent use of reflected neon reminded me of the so-called cinema du look. Everybody’s always wearing sunglasses, although not the mirrorshades of old school cyberpunk.

This is Mann’s first feature film since 2009’s Public Enemies — a film I didn’t care for very much, as I recall. I liked this one better, even with some of the rote characterizations. It’s a minor movie, but it looks great and achieves its simple goals without undue fuss. I really don’t understand why this was dumped into the theatrical doldrums or why it’s getting such rotten reviews. Maybe people have loaded expectations of Mann? Very strange.

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