I’ve long held a schoolboy enthusiasm for Michael Mann’s films that can only be likened to a nerd-love of Warcraft or Star Trek. I simply find the neon cinematography, macho gunplay and underworld settings seductive, a style Mann seems to hav drawn from Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), and most of Walter Hill’s back catalog (Warriors 1979, Long Riders 1980, Southern Comfort 1981, 48 Hours 1982), but most distinctly Driver (1978), which Mann’s own Thief (1981) feels like a homage. These features 70mm panoramic shots of smoky cityscapes, wide angles interiors, and amazing action set pieces, which director John McTiernan discusses on the making of Die Hard (1988) as being European ‘expressionistic’ style shots influenced by Bernardo Bertolucci and Stanley Kubrick, but were detested by the studios as it went against their industry practice and is impossible cut during postproduction. This meant scenes required a master shot, close up, shot-reverse-shot, cutaways and blocking, none of which directors such as Scott or Friedkin were especially fond of since it restricted the tone and beat of the scene.
Arguably, Mann carved out a style and method of storytelling all his own, which critics would often dub ‘auteur’, a term that is just as misleading as any of Mann’s characters and storylines. But what makes Mann an auteur director, a label frequently applied to directors such as William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott ? Mann whose work only appears distinguishable from those names because of his repetition of style, grittiness, exotic locations, explosive violence and designer clothes. Friedkin, a perfectionist and innovator when it comes to story research and technically designed shots (French Connection used many of the authentic locations and witnesses from actual case), as does Mann through the research he uses to bring his story to life, a method evident in Heat (1995), Manhunter (1986), Public Enemies (2009) and The Insider (1999).
I would say, unlike Friedkin whose work has often misfired and struggles to find a balance between entertainment and pretentious art (listen to his tedious commentary on The Hunted 2003 and Cruising 1980), Mann has the ability to relate to an audience and find something interesting to watch, or if this fails throw in an extended gun battle in a public area. Maybe Mann just likes guns and beautiful women, and believes that the heroes are destined to confront these two things at the cost of losing their own lives. I get the impression that Mann doesn’t really believe in heroes at all, he’s more interested in what makes a hero, what he thinks and how he ticks. More often than not, the mythic hero, usually either a policeman on the side of law and order, or a villain looking to make one last score to get out of the business, are haunted and obsessed to the point of having no life or connection outside of it. Although, emotionally complex or morally ambiguous tough guys are not exactly unusual for characters played by Sylvester Stallone or Clint Eastwood, whose goal is to stop the bad guys and save the girl, whereas in Mann’s films this archetype is far more claustrophobic and dangerous.
This paradox, this morally ambiguous existential hero, searching for a way out or searching for a mission, and doing anything to achieve it, is repeated over and over in Mann’s films. From Tom Cruise’s turn as the malevolent assassin in Collateral (2004), to the deranged and obsessive killers and detectives in Heat, Manhunter, Public Enemies and Thief. These characters, these men, remain loners withdrawn from the corrupt world they inhabit, and they survive using their skills and wits, not so much for moral reasons but for practical and personal philosophical ones; an identity, a true self. These men pursue money, revenge and power, but why? They often talk about abandoning their homes at any moment, of risking everything to achieve their goals to the point of nihilism, and it’s this which Mann finds so exciting. Not the reality or tragic consequences of these dramas, but the denial and temptation itself, which becomes a kindof noisey, visceral, absurd poetry. I would argue Mann’s swan song, the rebooted Miami Vice (2006), a film almost without a plot and virtually incomprehensible, is a stunning spectacle minus the Nietzschean themes of self-destruction that simply lets the characters run amok.
Mann’s latest feature Black Hat focuses on the international world of corporate hacking and cyber-crime, but perhaps more old hat than a fresh take on a cat-and-mouse thriller genre. The title itself is a term for ‘hacker’, one I’d heard of a few years ago as a darkside to online fraud or legal ‘white hat’ customer targeting. Here, the director’s long held a taste for corporate culture, fashion and business is once more in swing, and which was responsible for spawning a dozen imitations after the release of Heat and its iconic heist-gone-badly-wrong with M16s, sunglasses and Armani suits.
As with Mann’s previous films, the plot is formulaic and feels as if the script went through a dozen rewrites before Mann acquired it and decided to strip all the dialogue and characters development, and just retain the bare minimum of drama. Mann’s style is visual, body language and the ‘look’ of actors exchanging eye contact or in a tableaux against a piece of architecture. As with Public Enemies, Miami Vice and Last of the Mohicans (1992), sometimes this works, sometimesyou want more than just great photography and exposition.
The version I’d download was a badly filmed HD camera file, presumably filmed in China or Singapore, since there were no subtitles during the scenes that introduce the special agent travelling from Hong Kong’s neon-glitter to the drab US prisons in pursuit of a suspect who’d somehow hacked a finance system and involved a terrorist plot. This didn’t matter, because the dialogue was exposition, and you could guess the conflict that arose between the investigator and superiors in the bureau at his request to share classified information on this security breach. As with Black Rain, 48 Hours, Rush Hour or Red Heat, you think it’s going to be a story about culture clash, personality and diplomacy, and yet travelling from the wealthy districts of China, Mann offers little contrast, either visually or culturally, between the locations in Washington, LA, Hong Kong and Jakarta.
It’s simply more vistas, skyscrapers, nightclubs, motorways and streetlights stretching to infinity. What Mann does show us, an even less original flourish, is the futuristic world of coded data being sent and hacked from one system to another. A point of view I don’t think I’ve seen since The Matrix (1999), Tron Legacy (2010) or the CGI intro to Fight Club (1999). I wasn’t exactly impressed, and thought perhaps we’d moved on from the anxiety we’d all had about the digital age. In fact, I’m fairly certain that this plot about cyber-crime has been done before, although the only examples I could think of were The Social Network (2010), Die Hard 4 (2007), Hackers (1995), Under Siege 2 (1995), The Net (1995) and Sneakers (1992). With the exception of Social Network, each one gave us cringe-worthy gimmickry of movie stars pretending to use computers and saying lines about databases, user-interface and the information super highway. It’s as if technology had caught with Mann, and he’d wanted to do something that was en vogue, but I’d just wish he’d watched Die Hard 4 or Skyfall (2012) to see how dull cyber wars could actually be.
Perhaps some fans will appreciate that the film takes it’s subject about organised crime and technology very seriously without getting bogged down or engrossed in the tech jargon about servers, Reuters and IP addresses, which surprisingly it avoids in order to be more accessible. It doesn’t present a how-to-guide for hackers with the same authenticity which Mann used in his heist films, the actors talk about code and databases, and seems a detriment in choosing not to show us something more believable and interesting, instead of the exotic locations with occasional gunfights and chases. As with Mann’s Public Enemies, about the apprehension of John Dillinger and featuring a dynamic cast of talented stars, it fails to give us anything especially new or interesting as he’d done with Heat; I’d had the feeling that the research and stories about the film were more exciting than the film itself.
Furthermore, many critics will roll their eyes at seeing Thor actor Chris Hemsworth try to convince us that he’s a guy who spent time in prison and has a computer science degree. Programmers generally don’t look so tan or with such trim beach bodies, although he does make a convincing action hero, and good at snapping someone’s elbow as he is at configuring operating systems.
Possibly the most striking moment in the film is the final confrontation with the nemesis, an evil Colonel Kurtz, who resembles a grizzled Oliver Reed in Gladiator. He represents our Dionysus in the hero’s Oedipal quest for truth and power. Visually it resembles the final scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as a procession of Buddhist followers holding candles march without fear around a temple while the hero and his foe shoot machine guns and fight to the death.
Enjoyable, but disappointing.