Friday, January 23, 2015

BLACKHAT: A Girl and a Gun and a Laptop

(S      P      O      I      L      E      R      S)

This is the story of a film that you probably haven’t seen.  And another film that you probably haven’t seen because you pigeonholed it into a prison of mediocrity.  And a director who everyone wants to be one thing, when he’s clearly something else.  And maybe what all of this says about the modern state of moviegoing…and life…and all of that other stuff.

The creation story of Jason Staebler is Dead, the erratically updated literary e-venture that you’re feasting your eyes on right now, claims Michael Mann’s Miami Vice as its Genesis Chapter 1.  Like many would be authors, I felt like I needed a tangible prompt to motivate any kind of regular output from my quill.  And being a confirmed teetotaler, following in the decadent, self-abusing footsteps of Fitzgerald and Burroughs was sorta out of the picture.  Instead, in the late summer of 2006 I turned to the nascent services of for this here free web home.  As most of you faithful readers can see, that prompt hasn’t quite worked out as I intended.  But hey, it’s a start.

The prime impetus for the timing of this blog’s creation was that August’s release of the Miami Vice film.  Like many, when I first heard the pitch of Mann rebooting the tv show that he famously helped to shepherd along, that 80’s paean to feathered hair and pastel suits, that seemingly outdated cultural chestnut…well, yeah, of course I followed along with the opinion that most people with TASTE held.  Seriously, was Colin Farrell with a mullet supposed to be taken seriously?  Weren’t we as a culture waaaay past the electrosynthetic allure of Vice’s cokey noir?

Being a confirmed Mann enthusiast, I still went to see Vice on opening day.  And what I saw convinced me to start this blog.  Because here was a major work of art, an expressionist take on the crime film that was probably going to flop at the box office and be ridiculed by the commentariat.  And who was going to preserve any conversation of its worth?  Yep, that’s right: this guy.  Hey, it was 2006.  I had only been online fulltime for three years.

Thus, in my maiden essay for the blog(which you can read here…it’s pretty decent, but a bit dry and shallowly informed) I asked the question “Is Michael Mann the Terrence Malick of Testosterone?”  I was pretty proud of myself for that one.  Here and there, I still envision meeting Mann and addressing him as such.  Obviously, I’ve watched too many films about Hollywood parties.  But all joking aside, I still think that there’s worth in that neophytic essay’s philosophical thrust.

And that philosophy is even more in the foreground with last week’s release of Mann’s newest crime epic Blackhat.  Starring part-time Norse god Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway, the MIT schooled super hacked who’s furloughed by FBI to assist in a joint U.S.-China hunt for another super hacker hellbent on disrupting the world, Blackhat is ostensibly a globe-trotting techno thriller.  Now by this point, you’ve probably ingested the general boilerplate judgments that the film has received.  “It doesn’t make much sense.”  “The computer science is wrong”  “Hemsworth is toootaly miscast!  The hacker with muscles!  HA!”  It doesn’t help that Universal dumped the film into the mid-January wasteland, essentially leaving it for dead with a dodgy series of pre-release trailers and almost no major print advertising leading up to its opening day.  In some ways, I can understand this stance, because for almost ten years, the studios and the moviegoing public have been pining for a Michael Mann who doesn’t really exist anymore, only to be disappointed at every turn by the director he’s become…or, maybe more appropriately, the director he was all along.

In many ways, Mann is a victim of his own success.  With his 90’s run of The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Ali, he garnered much acclaim for his deft melding of critical examinations of codes of masculinity with classical narrative structure.  It didn’t hurt that he was working with members of the Hollywood acting pantheon.  I mean come on, this is the guy who followed up directing Method master Daniel Day-Lewis by bringing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together in one scene for the first time.  True, in its time Heat didn’t possess the critical status that it has today, but its signature long form action sequences have always been regarded as genre landmarks.

2004’s Collateral marked a major turning point for Mann.  The contemporary press marveled at Tom Cruise playing a villain (gasp!...although to give him his due, his feral Vincent is a marvelous turn…and remember, this was when Cruise could still lay claim to the status of biggest box office star in the world) in a tense two character voyage through the existential darkness of one Los Angeles evening.  But more important to the arc of Mann’s career was his full embrace of the possibility of digital cinematography.  Although he had begun experimenting with digital on Ali, Collateral was where he and co-DPs Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron pushed a technology that was still the exception to its fullest limit.  As Beebe notes in an insightful ASC interview, “With Collateral, we suddenly saw on the screen the night sky that we could see with our eyes, and that was revolutionary. Nobody had captured that in that way before.” Such a daring representation of the urban nightscape was complemented by the burnt ash lighting of the nocturnal Los Angeles streetlights, a stark visual scheme that seemed shocking at the time, but that would prove to be a roadmap for where Mann was going.

Miami Vice and 2009’s Public Enemies followed a similar digital strategy, but both were met with critical and audience apathy.  There are notable visual differences between the two films, the former luxuriating in quasi-Brakhageian impressionism (I still love A.O. Scott’s line about Vice being "an action film for people who dig experimental art films, and vice versa”) while the latter embraces the pinpoint resolution of the RED camera.  The bigger point of commonality, though, is how cinematic style becomes a character in and of itself, possibly the lead character.  There’s pleasure to be had in watching Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, and Marion Cotillard smolder, but Mann’s prevailing concerns are with exploring the limits of archetype and form.  And that’s not necessarily a popular concept in the modern big budget film landscape.

That preoccupation with the abstract continues in Blackhat.  After all, a film whose most visually dynamic action sequence is a CG-rendered flight through the interior workings of a hacked computer that occurs in the first five minutes probably isn’t going to win over many current action fans (who, let’s face it, are the target demographic that Blackhat was being pitched to.)  Most modern action films give the audience the pomp and violence that they’ve been trained to expect from decades of the genre’s dominance, but here Mann makes the daring choice of presenting the true action film of the modern world, a world where ground wars are losing their currency and cyberattacks are the wave of the future (he’s admitted that the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear system was an inspiration).  The infamous North Korean Sony hack was, in many ways, cataclysmically damaging, but the most readily accessible drama involved leaked celeb nude pics, barbed and dishy e-mails, and the temporary cancellation of The Interview.  No Audie Murphys to be found in this conflict.

And that’s an off putting concept for a film supposedly built on suspense and intrigue (cue this response).  But Mann seems to be hinting at something bigger than the labyrinthine techno-plotting.  Indeed, he’s once again gone back to his wheelhouse: cool studies of conflicted masculinity.  The audiences who grew to love the Michael Mann of the ‘90s could be lulled into forgetting his deeply lyrical duet of Thief and Manhunter from the ‘80s.  Those two thrillers are also ostensibly about hyper-talented professionals driven to the brink, but they’re also loving tributes to the noir loners of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  And both are ultimately oblique tone poems to the radical nihilism of classic masculinity, thrilling and sleek in their form, gorgeous in their visual audacity.

The Michael Mann of today has simply come full circle in his artistic obsessions and ambitions.  This time working with DP Stuart Dryburgh (who also lensed the pilot of Mann’s late, lamented HBO existential racing drama Luck) he continues to explore the beauty in the mundanity of the urban environment.  Blackhat’s Hong Kong is alternately a sterile architectural battleground and a neon jungle, the perfect embodiment of the conflicting nature of our world. 

Those who criticize Hemsworth as being miscast sorta miss the whole point, the one that Hathaway lays out when he tells Chen Lien that surviving prison is a matter of making their time your time to devote to your mission: improvement of the mind and the body.  Nick Hathaway is nothing less than a modern day samurai, operating in a digital world but still driven by a timeless code of honor.  His physical prowess is the armor that he needs to guard his nimble mind.  And make no mistake, it’s his story and his alone.  Devious as the chief villains may be, they don’t possess the charisma of a classic Mann villain…which may be the whole point, the encapsulation of an encroaching computer-driven threat that is so often anonymous. 

Much of the film’s charms, then, lie in the very zen concept of removing the ego form the viewing experience, dropping the classic dramatic expectations to bask in the pure cinematic possibilities of the form.  After all of the convoluted cyberplotting, Hathaway’s story ultimately concludes with a very analog standoff, as he confronts the main villain and his henchmen with but a knife and his own will.  This visually stunning sequence, set amidst a densely populated night parade in Jakarta’s Papua Square, engulfs the three principles in a sea of torches, their battle reduced to its most primal form.  When Hathaway finally confronts his enemy, his motivation for following through on the kill is not any hope of regaining the promised commutation of his prison sentence, but in avenging the murder of his friends.  In a world bound by Silicon Valley-inspired naked self-interest, the super hacker turns out to be the most moral and honor bound character in the film.

Not that Mann's art film aspirations are for everyone.  But it would be a shame if his late career excursions into the deep recesses of the form continue to quickly fade out of the theaters.  In a tentpole driven cinematic landscape, they're ever more vital and important markers of a still rewarding filmic past combined with the exciting technological possibilities of the future.


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