"You're thinking like you're back there." says a character whose name I can't even remember in Michael Mann's Blackhat. I know she's played by Wei Tang from the terrific and underrated Lust, Caution. I know this because like Public Enemies, Michael Mann's last film, Lust, Caution was the last film before a director threw up his hands and said "What do you want?" to an audience he no longer knew how to please. The further into discovering digital he's gone - the medium someone else found for him, that he knew would be the future, for better or worse - the further away from audiences he's gotten and the more he's burrowed into a select few critics' hearts. Having worked in a record store that specializes in trade-ins, few directors have their whole catalog traded in with the regularity of Mann, a director I've loved since I was old enough to know what a director is. People don't have the time for him they evidently once did - you can't return a film you didn't buy. And just as Lust, Caution sent Ang Lee racing toward middlebrow, NPR-friendly fare after a fearlessly intimate decade-plus to himself, and Ridley Scott retreated into Gladiator style pablum after the formally abstruse The Counselor was called the worst film of his already polarizing career, the indifference that greeted Public Enemies seems to have broken Mann's stride. Public Enemies was an experiment in a time, place and language that were altogether unfamiliar to him - I know I'm not the only one who thinks that film redefined the possible in digital grammar. I wouldn't change a frame of Public Enemies. It's perfect in its deliberate imperfections; one of the defining films of the 21st century. And when people shrug at your masterpiece it might just hurt your feelings.
I don't pretend to know what Michael Mann went through in 2009, but a few things seem clear enough - Blackhat's attitude is one of defeat, a movie defined by grief for a world that has changed and will continue changing. Progress means nothing anymore. Mann was likely equally devastated when he returned to Los Angeles - his true home despite that beautiful Chicago accent - and discovered they'd changed the lights on him. The sick yellow glow of the Halogen street lamps he used to play his greys, blacks and blues against has vanished. Replaced by white/blue flourescents. The resulting vacancy in the air was caught expertly by Robert Elswitt in Nightcrawler - the town finally looks like a set in a tv studio. It's anathema to Mann's version of reality; he has a formula for background stylistics being inversely proportional to the stylishness of the action. Chicago looks like a cool neon nightmare in Thief, but the action itself is all purposely grounded. Tough, but real. He met in the middle for Heat. A new LA just won't do. So, like a thwarted moth, he sought a new source of light. There are the neon orgies on the streets of Hong Kong, the dull sizzle of computer monitors blurring and muting flesh, always presented in contrast to the earthy reality of the skin of those watching, and finally the unearthly glow of the banks and towers of harddrives. Mann's recreation of the inhuman space of data traveling through circuitry is all the virtue (and none of the boneheaded mythology) of Tron and Tron: Legacy in one bravura little sequence. And it hints that a resigned Michael Mann isn't someone concerned with people anymore. His hero is a Chicagoan, like Mann himself, and he's only interested in getting every single task taken care of as quickly and efficiently as possible, because the motivation to do them splendidly isn't there anymore.
Chris Hemsworth's Nicholas Hathaway is a man who forgets what it meant to do things because there is joy in them. He does them because on the other side is the possibility of remembering how to love them. He emerges from prison after the same number of years since the last time Mann has made a film. He hasn't made a film set in the modern world in almost ten years. That's a long break from depicting our world as we know it. Hathaway is shown first listening to headphones, his hearing muffled. The world is now a little too big, a little too fast. Maybe that's why the mouths speaking Mandarin dialogue seem to lag a little behind their voices. Why Hemsworth needs a long second to himself before boarding a plane to LA. The world is bright now, and both perversely bigger and smaller than it's ever been, to paraphrase Transcendence. We're all in the same room, but no one's on the same wavelength. Hathaway/Mann's way of doing things just don't work anymore. The bad reviews that have greeted Blackhat confirm as much. There are hints of the old Mann in here (The action sequences still glue you to your chair, Viola Davis channels Pacino in Heat very effectively, the frenetic camera work of that film returns briefly, though in truth it resembles a hungover pantomime of the precision ambling of The Color of Money), but we're looking at a director looking for new pleasures. He's found only a few.
I don't think the Chinese setting was arrived upon idly, as the influence of its vanguard is strongly in evidence. Wong Kar-Wai used to juxtapose the deadly serious (cops, traffickers, hitmen) with the lighthearted (clingy ex-lovers and OCD lovers-to-be) and Mann's fused them without too much fluctuation in tone. The discussion about whether an ex-con should be dating a cop's sister crops up right before a police raid, a stray thread that will eventually be woven into the quilt once the focus has narrowed toward the end. There's a scene in a Korean restaurant that has the languid awkwardness in its choreography that calls to mind the delicate dance of space in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times. It's clumsier, but Mann has a heavier footfall. The lightest he's ever been was in Public Enemies. Those days are a distant blip in the rearview. Everything here weighs a ton. It starts with how he chooses to fill a frame. He builds himself a considerable team; Davis, Hong Kong police including Hemsworth's love interest, Hemsworth himself, his minder (played with little fuss and credible workmanlike anonymity by the ever-dependable Holt McCallany, still showing the beauty he wore forever and a day ago as a rapist in Alien³) and whoever else happens to be within arm's reach. Mann arranges them in chaotic patterns and erratic formations, hinting that they aren't united by a purpose, merely by incidental geography. Then he makes this giant crew sprint through the X and Z axis as frequently as he can find a reason to. The running is labored and ugly. It looks strange. Perfunctory. "What'd she say?" "Move fast." They run because they're being compelled. Different from the usual desperation with which Mann imbues his action sequences. They don't live for this. It's a task, like anything else. When asked what he'll do once he's been freed Hemsworth lamely suggests that he'll fix TVs. The world doesn't need Mann's version of a hero. The world is quiet and his characters have fallen quiet with it. Mann searches the faces of the dead for meaning and finds nothing as sad as Hemsworth, framed alone in worlds moving at an alien pace. Blackhat is a very lonely film.
There is, however, a dignity in the silence, and here is where Blackhat works best. The villain's philosophy, that which is not in front of him does not matter, is what Mann has discovered he's up against. Audience attention span, audience willingness to indulge fetishization, audience's sympathy for an idea that takes a whole film to bloom. That which does not stimulate continuously is not worth considering. That scheme - or is it a fear? - informs the film in every imaginable way. There's the dialogue, recorded haphazardly, fading in and out seemingly at random, forcing audiences to think about whether the content of a conversation matters in a film that's meant to be all momentum. There's the way the team slowly disbands, leaving Hemsworth and his love interest alone. Soon their influence fades and the film begins to reshape into a movie that seemed to be about them all along. Did they have any impact on each other or on Hathaway? It's a film ruled by a tide it can't seem to control, like the Apocalypse Now style festival and its current of bodies that keep Hathaway from his target in the final shootout. The action comes in, forcefully washing away the quiet. The action washes away and the quiet returns. In the quiet, gestures and symbols register. A sleeping man's hand lies on the floor. Hemsworth and his love interest lie together on their sides, facing each other in bed, waiting for a phone call. Three people walk through a bustling marketplace to a secret rendezvous, colours and sounds flaring up all around them, no point beyond seeing them navigate the crowds. Hemsworth's perfect face staring holes into data-filled screens and the night sky, feeling disproportionately connected to them, mournful synthesizer telling us what he can't ever come out and say. Conversations have no punctuation. When Tang is told by her brother that she's the only one he can trust, she looks away from him and into space we can't see for a small eternity and then turns back briefly to say "when do we leave?" in heavily accented English. Hathaway wants to let suspects walk around and lead them to the next man on the ladder. "I say we let 'em ride" he says to Davis. She sits with the idea for a long, long moment and simply offers a soft "yeah." Nothing clever, nothing memorable, except that the film had led us to believe that something greater was coming. Nothing great comes. Just violence that is all the more destructive for interrupting human contact founded on shared silences and knowing when not to talk anymore. Nothing more spectacular than death awaits them. There is time to stop, talk, and look into each other's eyes. Watching Blackhat is realizing that we can't possibly protect what we imagine to be our future. No government can plan for malevolence with no motive, a lesson some still refuse to learn. The indifference is here to stay.