Big budget auteurs are few and far between these days and represent, in my opinion, the last gasp of creativity and artistic merit within the Hollywood studio system. In that regard, Michael Mann’s Blackhat is practically Citizen Kane.
I’m only half-joking, of course, employing such a hyperbolic statement. Blackhat has myriad faults – some shot sequences and cuts meant to orient the audience actually have the opposite effect and seemed at odds with Mann’s vision and technical skill, and the frenetic pace he sets as director. Viola Davis phones in the type of role she usually crushes. Tang Wei imitates Gong Li’s Miami Vice performance to lesser effect. Chris Hemsworth’s pretty, plastic face looks lost for about half the runtime. But none of that matters because there’s an alchemy here and a heart that eclipses most of its issues.
Blackhat is a techno-thriller mood piece, a balls-to-the-wall articulation of Mann’s deepest fears in the internet age. Privacy is a fiction in this brave new world. Governments are glacially-paced bureaucracies more concerned with wielding power over their citizens and keeping secrets from their geopolitical opponents than solving problems and combating active threats. Terrorism, once narrowly limited by western neoliberals to Muslim jihadists half the world away, now includes the invisible scourge of cyber-criminals and pasty tech nerds who can’t be combated by traditional armies. The digital realm has become the battlefield, where wireless keyboards and raspberry pis have usurped the AR-series firearm as the foot soldier’s weapon of choice, and America is ill-equipped to fight a war on such a high-minded front.
All of this is like catnip to me, someone who finds world politics fascinating. The same can’t be said of the general public, sadly, who roundly rejected the movie as evidenced by an $8 million total at the domestic office against a $70+ million budget. That isn’t just a failure. It’s a fiasco of Heaven’s Gate proportions; no wonder a Mann project hasn’t seen the light of day since. Critical opinion was a somewhat more positive but still mixed, as fans of Mann’s 80’s and 90’s analog output lamented his continued shift into digital filmmaking.
I can understand why this movie underperformed and was subsequently forgotten by seemingly everyone, cast and crew possibly included. I simply don’t agree with the reasoning behind its failure. Blackhat was a victim of bad marketing, a lack of bankable leads (every member of The Avengers was tried out as a movie star after the film’s bonkers success and despite having the looks, Hemsworth didn’t have box office receipts to justify carrying a big budget action movie on his own after several cracks at it), and a post-holiday season dump of a release in the doldrums of January. Which is a real shame, because it represents a kind of original, globe trotting blockbuster that simply hasn’t been made much since.
It’s far from perfect, but Blackhat is a genuinely fine film that deserved so much more than the hostile response it received. If this is actually the final nail in the coffin of Mann’s directing career, big budget filmmaking and the major players who finance it deserve the slow and painful death that’s coming to them. It’s just a shame they’re snuffing out most of the great, old American auteurs in the name of exorbitant profit first.