Abort, retry, fail? Blackhat

Michael Mann’s Blackhat is the director-writer’s first contemporary crime thriller for almost a decade, and in that context follows not his Public Enemies (2009) but 2006’s unfairly underrated Miami Vice. The distinction is doubly significant since that film, seen in the light of this new release, must now be regarded not only as powerfully effective on its own terms but also as a turning point in Mann’s work. Although it retains the focus on existentially-driven characters on the right and wrong sides of the law familiar from Thief (1981) and Heat (1995), Miami Vice this time places them not on the streets of one city in one country, but in a transnational space that spans continents. Moving effortlessly from Florida to Cuba to Haiti to Paraguay to Columbia, it becomes clear that the dissolution of boundaries brought about by globalisation and what that might mean for an urban noir drama is Mann’s new concern. In Miami Vice the illegality that this facilitates is industrial-scale narco-trafficking; with Blackhat, a term describing a malignant hacker, it is cybercrime.

The timing is clearly fortuitous, with media stories of the hacking of the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the US military’s Central Command, responsible for the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, alleged North Korean cyber attacks on Sony Pictures over the release of The Interview and the continuing conflict of interests between the West’s intelligence agencies and its own populace. If this is the binary frontline of what is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid calling a war, in Blackhat Mann attempts to examine the allies and the axis, their weapons and their aims, and to do so with the realism, proximity and urgency that characterise almost all his work.

There is an obvious initial difficulty to overcome here – how to portray characters who convince with their actions in the digital domain, seeking remote or as Mann has put it kinetic effect in the physical world, whilst at the same time fulfilling the expectations set up by Mann’s other distinctive trait, his immediate, hyper-present gun battles that tear apart what cyberspace creator William Gibson's characters would no doubt call the meat world.

This Mann neatly addresses by drawing on his debut work, the exceptional 1979 television movie The Jericho Mile, and giving his MIT-educated hacker antagonist Nick Hathaway a jail-time past from an assault conviction even before his current incarceration for online bank fraud. True, Hathaway takes a step back in one of the two firefights that eventually explode the film, but this background at least gives the actions he does take in these and the final scenes plausibility.

The hacking itself is key, of course. There is a surprisingly large body of film dramas to both draw on and steer carefully away from when it comes to depicting the projection of oneself into an information space. Important examples are Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel’s Channel 4 film featuring Max Headroom, John Badham’s humanitarian WarGames, Robert Longo’s enjoyable adaptation of Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic and both Trons, as well as Die Hard 4.0, The Net, The Lawnmower Man and all three Matrices, right back in fact to the seldom-seen but superb Three Days of the Condor and including the ‘organic hacking’ of Inception, Dreamscape and Scanners.

Most of these address the fact that, as both Gibson and Mann have wryly observed, watching people type is boring, but thankfully Mann is a master at making the unexciting exciting (see The Insider) and has here taken his own line. Backed by his legendary preparation and research, he has created a depiction that stands up cinematically and which has rung true both for experts and lay audiences alike.

There are none of the flip absurdities of instant access and unconvincing screenshots that pollute so much of the genre, and the language employed is a good balance between the impenetrable and the patronising. There are realistic periods of waiting built in to the hacking sequences, and a realisation that not all systems are connected and so often require the physical insertion of a memory device to access, something featured prominently and presciently in Gibson’s early works. Crucially, and entirely accurately, most of the major moves are facilitated by what those intelligence agencies call human engineering – spoofing, cajoling and coercing actual people into achieving the next step. The Tron-like (lite?) journeys into circuit boards, though, a misjudgement, anomalous and redundant.

Overall, then, Mann melds all of these elements into an effective detective plot, though it is a story that sometimes feels limited rather than enhanced by its Far East locations, or at least by the rather uneven jumps between those locations. It is difficult to explain why the first two acts sometimes seem too distant in this regard; there is a lack of establishing shots and geographical knowledge is assumed by rather than served to the audience, but both of these approaches derive from Miami Vice where neither seemed a barrier. There are though a number of too-obvious shots where the architectural spaces and grids of the material world are matched to those of the electronic, and few where the tone and atmosphere of a city can be felt.

Its trailer immediately suggested Blackhat could stake a claim to being, in effect, the long-planned live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (1985), Mamoru Oshii’s anime based on Masamune Shirow’s late-80s manga, given both films’ Chinese setting, neon-washed night-time cityscape, street market chase scene and SWAT team action, in addition to the obvious shared theme of an enigmatic, manipulative hacker whose identity is only revealed at the conclusion. Production shots and use of the tag ‘ghostman’ as well as a final speech that recalls the purpose of Shirow’s Puppet Master might be thought a confirmation, and certainly there are hints of associated motifs in Mann’s other arc films, such as the portrayal of the Japanese restaurant in Heat and a general feel for street furniture and infrastructure – Mann’s approach to location scouting is identical to that of Oshii, gathering detailed stills imagery that may or may not directly appear in the finished film but will inform its look (like Kubrick, Mann started in documentaries).

Disappointingly, that notion fails to register in the finished film. With less frenetic camerawork and editing something of the texture of Oshii’s work might have had a chance to emerge, but as it is this is a further disappointment. Perhaps, given Mann’s occasional re-versioning of his films, an alternate cut might appear that could address this.

Fortunately that other Mann speciality, the city shoot-out, is not only present and correct but arguably raised to a yet higher level of verisimilitude, building on those seen in Heat and Miami Vice.

The first such scene is itself in two complementary parts. As the Hong Kong police Special Duties Unit pursues a gang of mercenaries into a spiral concrete storm drain Mann’s camera follows both with great eloquence, one pushing deeper into the drain, the other backing slowly out of it, all the while keeping the field of view moving in the right respective direction and never losing the viewer in what is a complex dance of motion. At the outfall the mercenaries find themselves caught between the Unit and Hathaway and his minders, who have taken another route above ground to the same point; a crossfire ensues as they try to shoot their way out.

Every aspect of what we see and hear, from the professional stance of the participants through the interaction of their gunshots with water and steel and concrete to the sudden, shocking effects of the two combined, speaks to Mann’s skill in this specialised arena. The second is even more potent due to its unexpectedness and the sheer horror it induces in the viewer. As no other film-maker, Mann shows the awful impact of rounds on human targets with a restrained matter-of-factness that is nevertheless far grimmer than Peckinpah-esque geysers of blood.

The climactic scenes give an intriguing opportunity to shine for one actor whose carefully calculated appearance and voice make subtle but compelling suggestions as to his character’s backstory, an effective moment that regrettably highlights a curiously limpid interest in the casting of the other supporting roles. This is especially strange considering how Mann has taken a small band of fascinating and talented actors and developed them over decades into regulars in his films, actors like Tom Noonan, Stephen Lang and Dennis Farina. Another, John Ortiz, almost unrecognisable from his terrifying incarnation as Jose Yero in Miami Vice, is exasperatingly wasted as a clichéd, desk-bound FBI man.

It must be hoped that, after two consecutive productions that are very much of mixed quality, Mann can see a way back to his previous form. Despite its evident flaws and frustrations, Blackhat could in fact be the springboard for that; might we eventually see a third entry in this new trilogy of international pursuit films, this time with people trafficking at its heart? Such a move would fit the final speech within Blackhat’s climax. Obviously seen by Mann as key but ringing rather hollow on first hearing, some post-viewing thinking, accompanied by recollection of the fatalism that lies within all of his films, suggests that one of Blackhat’s messages might just be that, ultimately, we are all code in others’ programs.

Posted 22 February 2015

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