The arrival of a new film by Michael Mann is an event indeed for any self-respecting male cinephile, particularly of thrillers. Like Howard Hawks and Walter Hill before him, his narratives are ones in which the professional virtues are upheld, even if in Mann’s case his protagonists are sometimes on the other side of the law. And those virtues are: being good at what you do, first and foremost, and staying loyal to your colleagues. At the same time, women are relegated to the function of ornaments, there to be loved, rescued perhaps, but rarely to take a part in the action.
Well, the good news is that, after a flawed last effort in Public Enemies, the director-producer has come up with a winner. The bad news is that the public has stayed away, the distributor has not given it a chance, and the critics have been divided. Nevertheless, for filmgoers for whom ‘action’ is not enough and who like to use a little grey matter as well, Blackhat delivers where Taken 3 decidedly does not.
The film all but begins inside the circuitry of a computer controlling the systems of a Chinese nuclear power plant, and as we watch the effect of the keys depressed by one faceless hacker in a darkened room, it is clear that a certain awareness of the nuts and bolts of ICT is going to come in useful. It transpires that a ‘blackhat’, or hacker, has appropriated a piece of code that permits him to bypass security firewalls and invade other programmes. There, that sounded impressive, didn’t it? In fact, I am not too sure of the whys and wherefores, but you pretty soon just roll along with it, and even if the occasional episode leaves you with one or two questions which would almost certainly have been answered if that last bit of dialogue had not been delivered so fast, the essential stuff is that good Hong Kong cop hitches up with former sidekick, and American (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor), whom he springs out of prison in order to solve the riddle of the whereabouts of this guy and what he plans to do next.
Now, you may marvel at the extraordinary skill set of this handsome jailbird, not only the most informed and adroit hacker there is (he even co-wrote the original code that has now been abused), but he can also handle himself with gun and knife, and does not do too badly with his bare hands: a mix of Alan Turing and Chuck Norris, if you like. But Hemsworth passes muster as a classic Mann hero, along with James Caan and Robert De Niro’s thieves, Day Lewis’s woodsman and Tom Cruise’s hitman: his face doesn’t give much away, he doesn’t speak unnecessarily, and his eyes don’t miss a trick. You just know that everyone, but everyone, has under-estimated him, not least the blackhat himself. There’s even a scene in which he does a passable impression of Hannibal Lecktor (sic), in Mann’s early masterwork Manhunter, when, hair slicked back and playing his interrogator like Hamlet’s pipes, he is interviewed by FBI tracker, Will Graham. Except that here it is the criminal who is cast in the Graham role, as the one whose special skills make him so important to the FBI.
The film is longish, though not unusually so for a Mann picture, but does not let up. There are a couple of shootouts in the best Mann tradition, shot close-up and in imaginative locations, the director again using digital camerawork and a reduced palette to lend authority to his urban action scenes, but the film saves its surprise for the last act, where at last the woman comes into her own, standing side by side, so to speak, with her erstwhile master and protector. Never mind that in order to do so she must wear a tailored white dress, high heels and sunglasses…