A number of tools are on a table, arranged in a row by size. A hand reaches into frame, and adjusts one of the tools into perfect alignment. That’s Blackhat in a nutshell: a Michael Mann pastiche by Michael Mann, enjoyable in direct proportion to how endearing you find his pet obsessions and stylistic quirks. The plot is a hot mess. The video aesthetic is as smeary and ugly as Mann’s other digital productions, only partially redeemed by striking night-time scenes lit solely by practical fluorescents, open flames, and the inner fires of stoicism.
Limiting myself to just the stuff I thought of while I was watching the film, Blackhat reminded me of:
• The jailhouse philosophy and the obsessive-compulsive treatment of tools, from—well, from damn near everything Mann’s ever directed, but particularly from Thief.
• The tedious romance between a brooding hunk with an iffy American accent and a largely wasted Chinese actress, last seen in Miami Vice.
• The battle of wits and tactics between professional criminals and mostly-competent law enforcement, punctuated by moments of sudden lethality and realistically loud small-arms combat. (Heat, Collateral.)
• The Eureka! moment where our hero pieces together the villain’s methodology set to a swelling synth score, cribbed directly from Manhunter (down to actual dialogue).
Casual audiences seeking light escapism with Chris Hemsworth will be baffled and put off by the style of the film; Mann completists have seen it all done before, and better, in other Mann films.
To end on a positive note, the “hacking” is vastly better than in most cyber thrillers. There’s a worrying CGI macro-visualization of silicon front-loaded for the “computers are magic” rubes, but after that it’s mostly command lines and social engineering around sloppy procedures. (The more egregious Hollywood OS stuff appears in connection with the NSA; in a post-PRISM/Boundless Informant world it practically seems realistic.)