Although its trailers seemed to suggest that its title should have been The Bourne Hacker, Michael Mann’s latest is a much more sensory, visceral beast – a collection of striking and soulful images. The plot, in which imprisoned hacker Nick Hathaway (a brooding, Mann-ish Chris Hemsworth) is furloughed to aid U.S. and Chinese operatives in capturing a blackhat “terrorist,” isn’t terribly remarkable, but it acts as a sufficient vehicle for Mann’s impeccable construction of this interconnected world of the digital and the physical – where everything is immediate.
It’s a chilling notion in an often chilling film. The first shot is of a digitally glowing world, cyber and pulsing with life. A nuclear reactor is targeted by the blackhat hacker, launching the heroes in a detective story in which the villain remains entirely unknown. This motif of interconnectedness, the juxtaposition (or lack thereof) of the natural and the digital, runs throughout the film. Characters are dwarfed by their surroundings, computer systems and grids mirror grid imagery and architecture. Gorgeous nighttime helicopter shots turn a Hong Kong marketplace into a strip of data. Mann’s obsession with digital photography continues here, and with Blackhat he continues to prove himself a master. His knack as a visual stylist remains unparalleled, and single camera focuses carry extraordinary emotional weight. Indeed, even in this world where there is always someone watching (represented beautifully by a shot of an apartment interior in which an eye on a poster from across the street gazes in through the window), Blackhat remains an extraordinarily humanist picture.
Amidst the scary, near nihilistic, look at humanity’s helplessness in the digital world, Mann focuses in sharply on his human characters, emphasizing their importance. He captures the subtle yet thrumming feelings between Hathaway and Chen Lein (Tang Wei) with the romantic beauty of legendary director Wong Kar-Wai. A simple close-up focus in on Wei’s neck, or Hemsworth’s hand on her hip, tells more than dialogue ever could. Action thrillers with this much violence never feel this emotionally alive.
And the scenes of violence themselves are perfect. Mann crafts and composes them like an architect, and in his shootouts characters become something else entirely, as if pawns to be moved and positioned. He revels in the fullness of the moment – every aspect of the act of firing a weapon is heard and felt, to the empty casing clanking on the ground. The images have a visceral immediacy akin to a cold blade pressed against skin. Every casualty is seen, heard, and felt. Michael Mann turns gunfights into an expressionistic art form.
*slight* spoilers ahead
The finale (pictured above), in which Hathaway pursues the blackhat hacker, takes place during a massive Indonesian ritual. Over 4,000 extras were used, dressed in traditional red garb, all moving rhythmically, carrying torches, in one direction. Hathaway cuts against the stream, infiltrating the system, pursuing his target in a moment where the digital and physical have collided. Mann’s images burn into one’s skin.
★★★★½ out of 5