June 13, 2017

Blackhat: The Director’s Cut

Chris Hemsworth stares down the villain in Michael Mann's "Blackhat".

Released in the January dead zone for movies, Michael Mann’s Blackhat drew little attention from audiences. My theater was basically empty, and I saw it on the opening weekend. Despite its commercial disappointment, this film has its share of devoted fans. This is especially true of cinephiles, who are drawn to Mann’s technical mastery even when the plot falls a little short. I count myself among this group of defenders that will go to the mat for his divisive movies like Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Ali. Many people love Heat and Collateral, but it takes a certain type of person to love the deeper cuts. Blackhat is a movie for that vocal group.

Mann constantly tinkers with his movies, and his latest project was no exception. In early 2016, he screened the Director’s Cut of Blackhat at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It seemed like that would be it, so I was stunned to learn that F/X would debut that version on May 9th of this year. While the overall impact is similar to the original, there are some major changes to the film’s structure. I’ve already written twice on this movie — an initial review and a detailed look at five key shots. Therefore, I won’t dive into all the specifics once again. For this post, I’ll stick with the changes in the Director’s Cut. For one last time (I think), let’s talk about Blackhat!

I don’t enjoy watching films with commercials, even when using the DVR. There's a choppiness that you can’t escape no matter how good the material is. I made an exception here, but it does halt the momentum. With that said, I don’t believe F/X needed to make significant cuts to adjust this story for TV. This is not a hard R, and the violence falls in line with modern television standards. Because of the limited availability of this version, catching up with it on the small screen was an easy sell.

A Different Attack

The most substantial change in the Director’s Cut involves the placement of the nuclear meltdown that drives much of Blackhat’s story. It occurred at the film’s opening in the theatrical version but has now moved well into the second act. The Chicago hack to increase soy futures becomes the event that jumpstarts the plot. The opening shot of this version is a quiet scene of papers flying inside the empty Mercantile Trade Exchange. It’s a more effective moment and reveals the danger lurking behind the scenes. The attack happens in a deserted space and from outside of public view. It’s an eerie scene that reinforces the story’s primary themes.

Another positive is removing some confusion from the arrival of Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) at the nuclear facility. It seems like the attack just happened, and that is the case in the Director’s Cut. The original version felt more jumbled, and this scene came out of nowhere. The “stock footage” marker still appears over the disaster scene, but it’s a minor quibble. It’s a more epic attack, so the shift to the introduction in the theatrical version makes sense. However, that move helped support a feeling that the plot was thrown together into an incoherent mix.

Character Beats

On casual glance, you could miss a lot of the other edits to this Director’s Cut. The original love scene offered subtle details on Hathaway’s back story, but that is gone now. The result is a more conventional moment between Chien Lien (Tang Wei) and Hathaway that’s easily forgettable. There’s a recurring theme to most of the edits — less emphasis on Hemsworth’s character. This allows a little more room for Dawai and Agent Barrett (Viola Davis), which is always welcome. One new scene reveals her uneasiness about Hathaway and Dawai’s trust in his buddy. It creates more of an ensemble feeling that adds weight to their fates down the road.

One thing that’s harder to fix is Hathaway’s awkward introduction, set up to be cool but really making him look like a poseur. The longer conversation in the restaurant with Lien also lands with a thud. His claim that the “time isn’t doing me” falls shot because Hemsworth doesn’t sell it. He’s more at home when the action starts, especially in the final act. Mann shares that ability, and a new tense moment with a revolving tail in Hong Kong is quite effective. It reminds us how well Mann can shoot even the most straightforward scene, especially in a crime film.

Blackhat’s Legacy

The Director’s Cut’s best achievement is to shine a clearer light on what already worked in Blackhat. It’s an effective crime film that depicts a believable world of hackers, their henchmen, and the agents that pursue them. There’s a sense of confusion on what’s really driving the villains in the modern world. We’ve come a long way from robbers strolling into banks and stealing the loot. The villain of this film is a nondescript guy hiding out of sight. When we encounter him in person, he seems less imposing and fairly easy to defeat.

Mann still has many supporters, but I wonder if he’ll direct another feature. He is 74 and hasn’t had a commercial hit in a long time. A biopic of Chicago mob bosses Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana may be in the works. More recently, Mann and Michael De Luca purchased the rights to Mark Bowden’s book Hue 1968 to develop a miniseries. I’m hopeful that one of these projects will happen, but Mann isn’t that most prolific. It’s been more than two years since Blackhat’s release, and we’re still a long way from his next work. In the meantime, it’s intriguing to look at a different cut of his last film. Whatever comes next, I’ll be one of the first people in line for Mann’s future projects.

This article is part of the Investigating Michael Mann series, which takes a close look at his remarkable films. Check out all the reviews on this page

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4 comments:

  1. Wow. Lot going on here. First, sorry man, I didn't realize you were actively blogging again! I will be sure to return often. Second, I LOVE how much you and I fight for Mann. I just love the guy's movies.

    And wow, these changes all sound great. Moving the nuclear meltdown to the middle of the film is a very smart move, and the love scene was always my least favorite moment (felt unnecessary to me), so removing that all together is a bold and wise choice. I need to see this version ASAP. Wonder if he'll release it on Blu-Ray/DVD?



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    1. No problem, Alex! I've had more time this summer, so it's been fun to get back into writing more regularly and diving into different genres.

      I'd love to say that we'll see a Blackhat Director's Cut Blu-ray or DVD, but I'm doubtful given how it did at the box office. I was pretty amazed to discover that it was on F/X! The shift of the meltdown to the middle was the best move with it. The love scene is there but without all the personal chatter from Hathaway. It's probably still a case where fans will enjoy it while others won't bother. It still has some great moments, and it's too bad that it has such a bad reputation. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. I already have the original Black Hat. I liked it a lot. But the director's cut is way better. Is there a way a group of fans could lobby to have the Director's Cut released on Blu Ray? How may pre-orders would it take to get some movement on this?

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    1. Anything is possible, though I'm skeptical because of how Blackhat did at the box office. While there are some big fans like you and me, I'm not sure there are enough in this case. Also, the Blu-ray/DVD market isn't what it once was, so there's less incentive for a studio to take the time to release another version unless they suspect a lot of interest.

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