Michael Mann's Blackhat is a tense thriller for the digital age

Sometimes the best or most interesting releases of the year fly under the radar. In The Catch Up, we shine a light on the films and albums we missed at first glance.

71-year-old director Michael Mann has touched the earth from the stratosphere with Blackhat, the best American film of the year so far and one whose pleasures, like his previous films (Thief, Miami Vice and Public Enemies in particular) lie in straight, sprawling genre reverie. His is a cinema of lock and key, and this is no less true with the international hack-me-not crime picture that exudes not so much tech savvy as tech style – something that us millennials have been prone to gawk at. The film follows a team of detectives and security officials from China and America who prop an ex-career hacker (Hathaway played by Chris Hemsworth) out of jail to make good on his genius and find a RAT (remote access tool) whose code is wreaking havoc on global commodities and entities.

As someone who knows very little about computers, the “hacking material” in Blackhat passes the only test I was interested in when sitting down, one of being compelling and rich and detailed in construction – this is essential to Mann’s skill, everything’s a process and everything can be made tactile. Or it needs to be. This is made clear from the opening shots of a blue, wired world – the new core of the earth firing – as we move into the computers of a nuclear power station in China. Firewalls have been breached and the site is pushed into meltdown. Mann and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh envision such an act from the micro level, beautifully moving through the actual computer hardware into the space where actual signals are transmitted and passed. There is a horrifying facility in the ease with which chaos is caused (numbers ticking over on a metre) – no doubt assisted by Mann and co.’s ability to convey complex visual information with similar ease as well as an undying sense of awe.

The macro and the micro – in ones and zeroes and then in real life – are closely interrelated. Mann’s narrative moves along familiar grounds, Hathaway falls in love with Wei Tang’s femme fatale – the sister of his best friend, Chen (Leehom Wang). He’s a hopeless yet endearing bro-ey romantic. The team trace through Hong Kong and Jakarta in an attempt to catch their bogeyman, whom they are beginning to find has more darkly abstract intentions. In the online ether space, he is uncatchable, so the hand-to-hand combat and ensuing gun battles with thugs trapping and trapping back retain their urgency. While the actual narrative logic and the logic of the progression of images exist on different planes altogether (the latter always being easier to follow with Mann, more important) – there is a sense that the normal rules don’t apply anyway. The game has moved past the law, as seen with Viola Davis’ down-to-earth detective authorising Hathaway to key-log into a top-secret NSA program “Black Widow” to find and root out the hacker.

To appropriate and crib from Armond White’s description of Spielberg: “when he wants to scare you – duck!” when Michael Mann wants you to feel violence – run. In a bar fight, Hemsworth’s character glasses a thug, cracks another’s neck with the corner of a table, you see and hear and feel the cuts, stabs, kicks and cracks, a testament as much to the film’s sound design as its crisp, unglazed digital images. Yet Blackhat is no The Raid – it has a soul to match its muscle (trademark brawn), inquiring how old crime meets new and where people fit in amidst our modern cloud-based system (skyscrapers if not DropBox) – between but at the bottom, along incandescent streets overshadowed by gleaming, glittering towers. Perhaps this is most exquisitely rendered in a shot of a plane taking off over Hong Kong, neon lights against the sunset. The beauty of the whole makes one believe that the plane is held up by string, myriad catastrophes one tear or click away. The final set piece, a manhunt amidst an Indonesian religious ceremony finds the physical among the spiritual. Constant streams of people move past Hathaway – holding fire to some unseen flame as he moves towards the gang members, green jacket and all. The elements of the mise en scène are masterfully arranged and directed – a circus of color, light and motion as the strapped up hero gets to the villains, stabbing and killing in full view, digital ghosts excised in a way that is wonderfully yet horrifically tangible. With it, Blackhat pivots from splendor and catches the sublime.

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