Thursday, January 29, 2015

Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

The Professionals

With an opening worldwide weekend gross of $6 million and at best mediocre reviews from critics, Michael Mann's $70 million Blackhat--despite the presence of Thor star Chris Hemsworth--is poised to become the director's biggest commercial and critical disaster to date. 

Easy enough to list implausibilities: Hemsworth plays Hathaway, a...genius computer hacker? Skilled in the use of small-arms fire and the Screwdriver School of Close Combat? Reads French philosophers in his spare time? Wears duct-taped bulletproof cardboard in preparation for battle? Has beauties like Chen Lien (Wei Tang) throwing themselves at him? Maybe not the last--experts (i.e. women) have assured me that Hemsworth is the actor of choice for playing Norse gods.

Against this stack of minuses yet another problematic observation: Mann doesn't seem to give a damn. Hathaway (like Frank, like Lt. Hanna, like Vincent, like Crockett) is another of Mann's professionals, a solitary figure (in this case literally so, locked up behind concrete and steel) kept in a state of stasis (thirteen-year sentence, for cybercrimes committed) till called upon to perform a duty, a mission, a sacrifice of some kind. 

This mission involves the (entirely fictional) Chai Wan Nuclear Power Plant in Hong Kong, whose cooling pump failure has triggered a tremendous explosion; the culprit is a RAT, a remote access tool, piggybacking on a worm program that Chinese cyber security expert (and Lien's brother) Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) recognizes as his own creation (downloaded from the internet) and that of his college roommate, the aforementioned Hathaway.

The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, a series of intricate chess moves as whitehats and blackhats (never referred onscreen as such) maneuver to gain decisive advantage.

And here's where Mann fails or succeeds, depending on how you look at it. Hacking isn't a visibly physical activity; if anything the scenes of actual assault (digitally animated bytes swarming the servers like disciplined Roman legions, sent by a solitary RAT blinking ominously in one corner) are a far less successful, and far less interesting, feat of visualization. Mann insists that the problem is a mental struggle to be resolved primarily by intellect, not knife or pistol, and calibrates his film accordingly. 

I mentioned chess, a game where the players are bound by strict if simple rules, but within those rules face a bewildering number of moves. Hathaway and his nemesis play a similar game, the rules being the Code common to all professionals, which basically boils down to a single imperative: don't act stupid

So Hathaway carefully examines what he knows his enemy has done so far. He assumes the blackhat has a plan; he assumes the plan is logical and follows a timetable (the number of possible moves reduced accordingly). Cornering the soybean money is logical (build yourself an operational stake); blowing up the nuclear plant is not. Hathaway has his countermove. 

Around this tangle of clear and unclear, of certain and unpredictable, Mann builds his film. Sometimes the view opens up to a vast dry riverbed, and Hathaway and Lien are forced to look about, lost in all the desolation; sometimes the scope narrows down to a subterranean passage, the action circumscribed by the tunnel's fatal curve. The game continues, the Code (don't act stupid) applying ruthlessly to both

Mann shunts all the energy that might come from the film's action to the surrounding landscape: the breathtaking sweep of the Hong Kong skyline as a helicopter swings across; the endless charnel house that is the devastated reactor, all stillness and ash and well-done corpses. Hathaway, Dawai and Lien remain unfazed by the dramatic vistas, the death and devastation. They're professionals; losing one's cool is an obvious form of stupidity

Critics call the affair that quietly sprouts between Hathaway and Lien insipid, lacking in chemistry; perfectly possible--Hemsworth isn't known for his thespic (oh that word) prowess--but it's also perfectly possible to read their reserve as that of professionals who know they're breaking the Code, know they're being stupid, do so anyway. 

You're reminded of Murnau's Sunrise, where the protagonist's name was Man, his co-protagonist's Woman; Mann doesn't quite have the daring to make his characters so abstract, but he's headed in the same general direction (next picture maybe?). You're reminded of Bresson, who called his actors 'models' and drained them of obvious emotional life--you're forced to pay closer attention, scrutinize their faces for furtive signs of thought, feelings, a clue as to how you're suppose to feel about them. You're forced to look at their hands, which are often more expressive--and then remember how startlingly effective Hemsworth was with a screwdriver. Not saying Mann is as subtly inventive as Bresson either (the action sequences in Lancelot du lac are unsettlingly staged and shot, on a fraction of the budget Mann is used to working with), but they do share a similar desire to maintain a low onscreen temperature.

A disappointment? According to the Code, which Lien and Hathaway follow with (of course) professional competence, sex is a biological imperative, a way of releasing hormonal steam. It only becomes love when the act of staying together becomes a hindrance not a help--which at one point it does; significantly it's Lien who decides to violate her Code, after which Hathaway chooses to support her decision. Nothing obvious, just the twitch of facial muscles here, there. They may be tossing their Codes aside for each other, but hardwired habits don't die easy, and Mann respects this--just as he later respects the blackhat's decision to violate his Code, for his own reasons (basically pride--Hathaway has humiliated him, and he demands redress)

The film ends with a confrontation under torchlight, in Jakarta's Balinese Nyepi Day Festival, but the real climax has occurred much earlier, when one competitor has managed to thoroughly read the other's book (his Code if you like)--what follows at Nyepi Day no matter how violent or spectacularly shot is mere denouement. 

Is it more than a well-made thriller? Don't know of any recent picture that has made such a fetish of the gradual (some will say too gradual) rise of tension against a background of serenely menacing beauty. Don't know of any recent picture where the actions of specific individuals feel so grandly unimportant. Mann's overall vision--and in my book it is a vision--says something (however quietly, however professionally) about the state of grace under which the best minds operate, and how little all that matters in this chaotic world.  

Best action film of the year? Don't be silly--it's only January (tellingly the graveyard period in which unwanted or unpromising productions are dumped). But it's a damned entertaining one, and in my book should stand up well against whatever might follow. 

First published in Businessworld, 1.22.15


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