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By Adam Nayman

It’s a measure of Michael Mann’s self-awareness—and, all evidence to the contrary, he must have some—that over the course of Blackhat Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) gets to play at being both Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. Introduced in manacles and prison whites with a full complement of armed guards monitoring his every move, he’s later freed and recast as a righteous bloodhound, even repeating William Petersen’s deathless, thinking-out-loud dialogue from Manhunter (1986): “Didn’t you, you son of a bitch?!”

Hathaway’s words are directed towards the shadowy computer hacker whose tightly encrypted predations catalyze Blackhat’s plot, but they could easily double as the inner monologue of film critics faced with the auteurist conundrum posed by Michael Mann’s cinema. The cases for and against the septuagenarian Chicagoan have been made, eloquently and bluntly and at fairly regular intervals, ever since his debut with Thief (1981) nearly 35 years ago. The prosecution charges Mann with crimes and misdemeanours against dramaturgy, while the defense shrugs off the accusations by reminding us that film—or, to be more accurate about the past decade’s worth of the defendant’s work, commercially distributed digital videos—is a visual medium. (Cue the high, reedy, urgent voice of Tom Noonan’s Manhunter sicko Francis Dollarhyde: “Do you see?”)

I’m not of course suggesting that the critics who have put so much evident effort and emotion into their Mann-ifestos over the years are serial-murdering sociopaths (well, not all of them, anyway). Anybody with a functioning set of eyeballs can apprehend that Mann is a conscientious stylist, and that his style has evolved, at times quite interestingly, over the years: the neo(n)-noir lighting of Thief was submerged into the serenely aquamarine color scheme of Manhunter, which in turn yielded to the smartly torqued classicism of The Last of the Mohicans (1991), Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999). But the true turning point for Mann, in both practical and formalist terms, was Collateral (2004), which harnessed the agility and immediacy of the digital camera only to yoke its mise en scène to a hoary hired-gun plot—one not wholly different in its basic generic outline from Thief or Heat, but somehow exposed rather than disguised by the gritty digital murk. The quasi-verité feel of Collateral’s nocturnal overture—a freewheeling tour through the streets of Los Angeles in the company of two sexy, attractive actors (Jada Pinkett and Jamie Foxx)—was dispelled the moment that Tom Cruise’s silver-fox assassin descended into LAX on the world’s most ominous escalator. No matter how nimbly Mann wielded his camera, the immovable movie-star object at his film’s centre came kitted out with a set of built-in narrative, dramatic and ideological compromises sufficient to foil even the most forceful filmmaking.

Suffice it to say that I feel the same way, to greater or lesser degrees, about Miami Vice (2006), Public Enemies (2009), and Blackhat as I do about Collateral—that their stray, seemingly magically engineered moments of visual beauty do not excuse their basic preposterousness. Nevertheless, the argument that these films are actually enhanced—for some, to the level of transcendence—by the tension between their flat-lined writing and acting and Mann’s preternatural command of light, composition and editing is persuasive, when selectively applied. At one point in Blackhat, a shot of a team of snipers slinking past a line of shipping crates in a Chinese port city holds just long enough, in the midst of an otherwise staccato series of set-ups, to reveal a glancing ripple in the water in the foreground, and it’s as if the frame (and the entire movie) have been momentarily enchanted. (The cinematographer is Stuart Dryburgh, who previously worked with Mann on the scuppered HBO series Luck.) Like Claire Denis or Terrence Malick—to name just two of the heady comparisons that have been invoked in tweets about Blackhat—Mann is equally adept at directing our gaze and allowing it to wander; few directors are as willing to adhere to the philosophy of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (which is perhaps why I sometimes feel like I haven’t seen the same movie as my peers). The more elusive a movie’s sensations are, the more that some viewers will yearn to try to recapture them, through either wistful recall or obsessive re-watching—which may account, at least in part, for Mann’s canonization in certain wings of cinephilia.

The problem, at least for this critic, is not the essential wispiness of Mann’s movies, or even their self-seriousness, but rather the fact that they never go far enough in their formalism to clarify the director’s aesthetic intentions or vindicate the grand claims made for them by Mann’s supporters. Unlike, say, Denis’ L’intrus (2004)—which borrows the outer shape of a thriller for the purposes of enigmatic modernist experimentation—the maddening ambiguity and dramaturgical thinness of Mann’s recent movies could just as much be evidence of scattershot creative decisions as statements of thematic purpose. Miami Vice may be as personal a film as The Tree of Life 2011), and one as well that sacrifices narrative clarity in favor of rapturous emotion and thick atmosphere. But even if the nebulous opposition of “personal” vs. “industrial” filmmaking cannot truly be invoked to justify favoring one nearly three-hour American epic over the other, the fact is that Malick is, by his own choice, entirely untethered by conventions. Mann, meanwhile, is free, but everywhere in chains—a self-conscious, self-incarcerating stylist all too willingly working within the confines of genre formulae and big-studio diktats. (This is the true meaning of Blackhat’s last shot, I’d say—without of course saying any more than that.)

Like Peter Strauss’ Murphy in Mann’s marvelous TV movie The Jericho Mile (1979), Nick Hathaway begins Blackhat as a prisoner, and the virtual freedom he finds at his fingertips—after being sprung from the pen by a coalition of American and Chinese government agents to help them take down the “blackhat” hacker who has remotely detonated a Chinese nuclear reactor—is a rehearsal for grander ambitions. Like so many brilliantly skilled movie convicts before him (including Hannibal Lecter), he’s looking to turn a temporary furlough into a get-out-of-jail-free card. (How he’s so up to date with his tech when he’s been in jail since the first iPhone came out is part of his mysterious allure.)  And no less than Robert De Niro’s superthief Neil McCauley in Heat, he’s an avatar for his virtuoso director, who finds in the spectacle of his outlaw heroes’ cool professionalism—from safe-cracking to bank-robbing to high-end cyber-hacking—a metaphor for his own métier.

Hathaway’s progress towards freedom entails endangerment—like all hackers, the blackhat has, naturally, contracted a team of mercenaries to kill anybody dogging his tail—and exoticism, in the film’s excursions to Macau, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as in the person of the beautiful Chien Lien (Tang Wai), a fellow internet warrior who in short order becomes Hathaway’s lover and soul mate. By this point, Mann’s detractors and deifiers alike should be aware that the perfunctory nature of this romantic pairing—like Hathaway’s metaphorical-brother bond with Chien’s actual brother Chen (Wang Leehom), the often banally expository dialogue, the de rigueur semi-automatic shoot-outs to spike the story’s pulse, and the swoon-worthy GQ-cover wardrobes of agents who are desperately working to avert global cyber-catastrophe—is part of this particular filmmaker’s package; if it’s all rather risible in light of Mann’s much-vaunted commitment to “realism,” let’s at least concede that Mann has more than mere realism on his mind. But acknowledging that Mann is drawn to archetypes (née clichés) as a sturdy, functional foundation for the display of his glittering visual baubles is not the same as granting that his films have true archetypal weight, or agreeing that the intermittent flights of formalist fancy ever really take leave of the terra firma of the formulaic fiction.

Mann’s standard-issue macho mythology is all the more wearisome this time out as it feels especially retrograde in light of the film’s documentary textures; nobody is better at shooting vehicles in transit or the in-between spaces of 21st-century megacities than Mann. Even so, Blackhat never really gains traction as a dispatch on the digital century: the Asian locations scan more as an industry-savvy move (à la fellow international playboys Christopher Nolan and James Bond) than a state-of-the-global-village address, while the implications of keystroke-quick acts of terrorism are prosaically stated rather than satisfyingly elucidated. (“Who did you lose in 9/11?” asks one character, to remind us that this is all serious business). As to the old saw of form = content: whether Mann’s CGI-assisted camera plunges through microscopic mazes of fibre-optic cables strikes one as a breathtakingly epiphanic capturing of the contemporary or as Mann nibbling on David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) leftovers is, I suppose, a matter of taste.

Or, perhaps, of taste-making. Pauline Kael’s dismissive review of Thief all those years ago was a beacon for critics of a certain orientation to exalt both the film’s hard-boiled shell and all the rich formalist artistry within—the sweet spot between cliché and abstraction. While Mann’s champions have been consistent and added to their ranks in the time in between, the relatively middling box-office performances of his late digital features—culminating in Universal consigning Blackhat to the white-elephant graveyard of a January release, despite its Asgardian headliner (oh, if Hemsworth only had a hammer…)—is a rallying call for the defenders of the realm. It’s probably unfair that Blackhat is going to be pelted with negative, mocking reviews in daily newspapers, and not only because it doesn’t totally deserve them: far less accomplished films get praised all the time for doing the rudimentary things that Mann can’t quite manage (clear cum simplistic storytelling, skin-deep psychological realism, etc.) without ever coming close, or even attempting, anything like his coups du cinéma.

At the same time, the #TeamBlackhat campaign that’s already attempting to usher the film into the hallowed hall of “misunderstood masterpieces” doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about Michael Mann—or his new movie—that we don’t already suspect to be true. That said, what I think I know about this particular filmmaker may be less than you, dear reader, especially if you’re certain one way or the other about the best way to apprehend his images: as revealed signs and wonders, or as hapless self-parody. The rest of us, meanwhile, sit in our theatre seats—maybe not glued to them like Stephen Lang’s snaky, soon-to-be-slaughtered tabloid journalist in Manhunter, but dutifully, as if there were something at stake in what Mann is doing here—and try our best to say what we see.

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