Cyber terrorism thriller Blackhat sees director Michael Mann continuing to explore themes found in his earlier works like Heat and Thief, but with a firm foot in the stylistic experimentation that has characterised his 21st century output to date.
Those with little tolerance for Collateral, Public Enemies, and, especially, Miami Vice may find little to latch on to here, but those enamoured or, at least, fascinated by his increasingly impressionistic and abstract use of digital in approaching action film scenarios will be rewarded. He’s even thrown in a couple of cheeky self-citations for the super-fans to get a kick out of – see Chris Hemsworth’s lauded hacker Nick Hathaway quoting one of Manhunter’s best remembered lines.
This is a film where the substance is all within the style, making it more akin to crime films from the Asian territories it visits (and takes co-stars from) than the tropes of Hollywood procedurals. Largely giving little consideration to conventional plotting, the film opens with a wordless, near human-free set-piece that descends from above the Earth, glistening with electronic signals, to a supercomputer vortex that is its own universe, all leading to a nuclear reactor attack in Hong Kong that kicks off the story.
Blackhat is not a sci-fi film, but this comes close to being what a Michael Mann live-action take on Ghost in the Shell might look like – and until a final act reveal, it shares with that cyberpunk cornerstone the concept of a cat-and-mouse chase with an unknowable malevolent force.
Blackhat’s narrative beats are often generic at times, but Mann has always thrived within genre templates. The grace notes he imbues are what elevate the occasional iffy notes of Morgan Davis Foehl’s writing. As much as his films are about examining process, they are just as concerned with ethereal emotional connections; sensual French auteur Claire Denis is a noted Mann fan, and select scenes in Blackhat come across like how she might direct an action film. Much like how an unknown force seizes control within the story, so too does an ineffable haunting atmosphere provide this film’s power.