Few filmmakers are as comfortable combining the cruddy and the pristine as director Michael Mann, especially since he’s turned to digital cameras. It’s not only that he can offer up both the dazzling Collateral and the dingy Public Enemies. It’s that this variation in aesthetics often takes place in the same movie, sometimes in the same scene.
Consider Blackhat, which stars Chris Hemsworth as an imprisoned hacker sprung by the government in order to track down a global techno terrorist. There is a sequence in a Korean restaurant where the deep red walls are so richly envisioned they seem to be dripping with blood. It’s eerie, ominous and a hint of the brawl that eventually erupts when Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway is attacked by henchmen. Yet the brawl itself is so fuzzily filmed, from a rash of conflicting angles, that it feels as if it were captured by a handful of camera phones.
This isn’t an isolated incident. In Blackhat, a grainy, washed-out close-up is likely to be followed by a stunning establishing shot of a glowing Hong Kong street. Why the distinction? Is it an attempt to wed style with theme (so that the restaurant scene becomes a commentary on the ugliness of violence)? Or did someone hand Mann the wrong camera?
Hemsworth doesn’t make hacking “sexy,” but he does makes it intimate.
Whatever the case, Blackhat still manages an idiosyncratic pulse for a cyber-thriller, and that’s due largely to Mann. (The screenplay, by Morgan Davis Foehl, is a shaky stockpile of clichés.) Rather than avoid shots of computers – the bane of the genre – Mann gives screens almost as much time as human faces, suggesting they’re what really matters in this day and age. Even a sequence oft-employed by Michael Bay – the determined group of men walking in slow motion across a tarmac – has a hypnotic pull in Mann’s hands, thanks to the delicacy with which he segues from one camera speed to the next or shifts focus within the frame. (I mean no harm by calling him the thinking man’s Michael Bay.)
In Hemsworth, of Thor and Sexiest Man Alive fame, Mann probably has a star better suited to the likes of Bay’s Bad Boys II. But that’s not to say he’s entirely out of place. Some of his bravado is a bit, um, chesty, but there’s no denying he brings a certain electricity to his typing scenes. He doesn’t make hacking “sexy,” but he does makes it intimate, asking “May I?” when he needs to peek at someone’s screen.
Indeed, Hemsworth is smoother with keyboards than with Wei Tang as his awkward, obligatory love interest, easily the movie’s weakest thread. He also has more chemistry with Viola Davis as a driven Department of Justice official. Staring down road blocks no matter what country they find themselves in, Davis suggests she deserved a seat at Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s Heat table.
Blackhat isn’t in that category of Mann film, yet it’s also no Miami Vice. The final showdown alone makes the movie worth seeing, as Hathaway pursues his adversary amidst the crowd at a Jakarta religious festival. A throng of red robes dominates the screen, until we notice Hathaway, in a beige jacket, slipping into the stream in the right-hand corner. It’s a quick moment and a small one, yet it’s also deeply evocative – an arresting, symbolic image of a hacker infiltrating a system and barely being seen.