Brow Beat

The Director’s Cut of Michael Mann’s Blackhat Takes It One Step Closer to a Flawed Masterpiece

Chris Hemsworth as a black-hat hacker named Hathaway.

Universal

Despite Michael Mann’s penchant for reworking his movies after their theatrical release, the new “Director’s Definitive Edition” of Heat merely upgrades the quality of its digital transfer. (The two lines of dialogue snipped from previous post-theatrical versions remain snipped.) But Mann fans got an unexpected surprise when this turned up on FX’s broadcast schedule:

Mann’s director’s cut of Blackhat, which was previously billed as a mere “revised version,” has previously been seen only once, at a screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinématek during last January’s Mann retrospective. At the time, Mann said there were no plans to release it in any other format, but according to a representative for FX, the version it’s airing is more or less that cut, although it does contain “additional changes and remix.” (Mann will probably still be re-editing his movies on his deathbed.) The movie will be further be edited to include commercial breaks and, with “minimal changes,” to meet broadcast standards.

It’s vastly different from the version of Blackhat that screened in theaters in 2015, although unlike most director’s cuts, it’s not simply a longer version. From the first shot, which features papers wafting to the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, it’s radically restructured so that the movie’s hacking attacks escalate in a logical way. In the original cut, the evil hacker, who calls himself Ghostface, begins by forcing a nuclear power plant to go critical and follows it up, rather anticlimactically, by manipulating the price of soy futures. Restoring the original order eliminates some of the theatrical version’s more inexplicable choices, including the horrendous dubbing in the scene where Chinese officials mull their response to the power plant’s meltdown. The director’s cut makes it clear they were originally discussing an entirely different attack, and Mann simply laid new dialogue over the scene without bothering to reshoot it. The new cut also includes a more substantial introduction for Viola Davis’ FBI agent and other nips and tucks that subtly shift the balance away from Chris Hemsworth’s muscular, Foucault-reading hacker to the ensemble around him.

Blackhat is still, in any version, a bit of a mess, but like Claire Denis’ The Intruder, it’s a movie whose disjunctures feel purposeful rather than haphazard; it’s like the movie is being hacked into as you’re watching it. The movie’s detractors—who were, and still are, in the majority—pointed to a shot early in the film with a “STOCK FOOTAGE” watermark as proof Mann was phoning it in, never mind the unlikeliness of uncleared footage making it into a $100 million studio movie. Instead of fixing that “mistake,” the director’s cut doubles down, following it with CNN B-roll overlaid with a Getty Images stamp. The same goes for the moment where the soundtrack abruptly goes quiet and then starts up again, like a worn LP skipping on a favorite track; it now happens more than once, making it clear that it’s a strategy and not an oversight.

Inevitably, there are bits you miss in the new version, like the moment when Hemsworth’s hacker starts relating his troubled backstory and the movie abruptly fades out as if it’s lost interest in his sad-sack spiel. And it’s still, like all of Mann’s movies, in love with its own macho mythology. But like Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, it’s a movie that seems aware of how crippling that mythology can be, and the fact that no version of it will ever feel wholly complete only enhances its mystique.