How Does “Blackhat” Employ Michael Mann’s Trademark Visual Style?

Love him or hate him, Michael Mann has a unique visual filmmaking style that spans his entire career. While most Mann fans are well-versed in the Antonioni influences in his artistry, Mann’s work is identifiable in its own right, and Blackhat (2015) is no exception. It feels like a Mann movie. It flows like a Mann movie. And it centers around criminals doing heroic things, like a Mann movie. Sure, there’s gun fights on city streets, speedboats cutting through glistening water, macho men, and pretty women - all of which are standard issue Mann film commonalities - but his trademark visual style and structure are all over the place, and arguably what keep the movie going.

As Matt Zoller Seitz on says,

“You could call this movie “Michael Mann’s Greatest Hits” and mean it as a slam or a compliment, depending on your feelings about the director—but all the hits have been remixed and rethought… “Blackhat” has enough fighting, shooting and brooding to satisfy fans of Collateral and Heat, plus a bumper crop of trademark Mann images: daytime and nighttime skylines, existentially empty roads, cops and criminals posed against post-industrial landscapes, soul-mates having deep conversations in restaurants, reflections in rear-view mirrors and picture windows, brazenly off-center closeups, bespoke suits and designer sunglasses. These Mann-erisms feel newly poignant because they’re celebrating light, space, architecture and flesh, even as the movie’s heroes obsess over virtual conspiracies, and keep an eye peeled for coldblooded killers dispatched by hidden masters.”

Sound and light are two of Mann’s favorite things, and this film utilizes them in some of the most powerful scenes. Lights are extra bright. Sounds are shockingly loud. Mann picked many of the locations in the film specifically for their aesthetics - the neon lights, the crowded spaces.

“The movie is a sound and light show, first and foremost, but it’s also a sneaky eulogy for a dying way of living and seeing: rage, rage against the dying of the real! The filmmaking prods you to contemplate the physicality, the tangibility, of what’s onscreen—to think about actions as actions, people as people, things as things. Sunlight and streetlamps are searingly bright, gunshots are deafening, landscapes and skylines awesomely vast. When men grapple in a cramped diner and someone’s head smashes against a table, or when Hathaway repeatedly slams the flat end of an axe-head against a metal screen, or when bullets rip through a cargo container or a screwdriver plunges into a man’s neck, you flinch.” - Matt Zoller Seitz, again.

Visually, Mann is having a lot of fun with shooting digital. The Telegraph writes,

“When the film reaches Hong Kong, Mann and his director of photography, Stuart Dryburgh, basically go nuts, building a multifaceted portrait of the city – its soaring towers and neon-cluttered backstreets – that tends towards an almost cubist abstraction. The key visual precursor here is Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animation Ghost in the Shell, and Mann’s film often feels like a live-action reimagining of that classic of cerebral melancholy. While Hathaway and Lien rattle through lines of code in a cramped Kowloon apartment, enormous eyes on advertising hoardings peep through the windows – a silent chorus of 21st-century Dr. TJ Eckleburgs. When a character is shot dead during a typically gripping night-time shoot-out, we see a close-up of their eye, and then the final thing they saw: a single, spindly skyscraper looming up into the black sky. There’s something horrific, and perhaps even blasphemous, about the image – a purely visual twist of terror that makes you draw breath… Extreme, lowlight shots are only possible because Mann is working at the vanguard of digital cinema”

The author suggests the all-digital cinematography and the pacing of the film suit the urgency of the story. The narrative of Blackhat is on a timeline, and the film visually keeps up with that unsettled feeling of fleeting time.