Meet the new “Blackhat”… same as the old Blackhat —well, mostly.
Last night, as part of an ongoing retrospective of his work at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Michael Mann unveiled the world premiere of the new director’s cut of his techno-thriller: a film that, outside of a few passionate partisans in critical circles, was generally met with indifference when it was released last January (here’s our positive review). As someone who was neither a vociferous defender nor an ardent detractor of the film —finding myself feeling detached from its plot and characters while admiring Mann’s formalism, which is often expressive enough to compensate for its script and acting deficiencies— I was curious to see whether Mann’s new version would push me towards one direction or the other.
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After an extremely terse introduction from Mann himself, in which he said that he hoped the audience would enjoy this new cut and which he said is “quite different”— I settled in with the rest of a sold-out crowd at BAM Rose Cinemas for another round with Chris Hemsworth, Wang Leehom, Tang Wei and co.
As is the case with Mann’s director’s cuts for “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Miami Vice,” many of the changes from the theatrical version in the new “Blackhat” cut are fairly minor: lines of dialogue are removed, scenes are shortened, the audio mix is reworked, and the like. A shot of Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) doing push-ups in a prison cell, for instance, is gone, as are a couple lines of dialogue during the brief heart-to-heart Nick and Chen Dawai (Wang) share in a helicopter after Chen sees Nick and his sister, Chen Lien (Tang), in bed together. Trivial as such edits may seem in the moment, cumulatively they add up to a more propulsive picture, one that storms through the developments of this technological procedural at a more markedly furious pace than before.
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But there are some major differences as well —whole sequences are either added or deleted. A brief suspense sequence in which Nick, Chen Lien and FBI agent Mark Jessup (Holt McCallany) try to elude a car they suspect is tailing them has been added to the beginning of the film’s lengthy Hong Kong-set middle section. On the other hand, a parking-garage sequence that acts as an anticipatory prelude to the film’s Jakarta-set public-parade climax has been dispensed with. Neither change necessarily adds to or detracts from the film.
Two changes in particular, however, stand out in the director’s cut. First, Mann has somewhat altered the scene in which Nick and Chen Lien first hook up on a Los Angeles rooftop after they have both narrowly escaped from an ambush at a Korean restaurant: There is no longer any dialogue in which Nick spills some more details about his personal history; fleeting but unmistakable erotic sensuality is uninterrupted in a way that makes their romantic connection play a bit more persuasively here than in the theatrical version.
But Mann’s biggest revision comes right at the beginning. “Blackhat” no longer opens with cosmic shots of the moon in space, but instead with blurry shots of a Chicago trading floor —one about to experience a frenzy of activity as the film’s villains artificially run up soy futures. With the theatrical cut’s opening Hong Kong nuclear-plant explosion moved to the middle of the film, the catalyst for the events in “Blackhat” is no longer a glamorous big boom, but a relatively more mundane trauma: commodities fraud. No wonder the film’s distributor, Universal Pictures, felt less than confident about this film: who would be immediately seduced by the prospect of seeing a thriller that’s essentially about a counterfeit commodities spike? This shift in plot emphasis may not have worked for mainstream audiences, but it better serves one of its major themes. For a film that is largely concerned with the potential for authentic human connection to override the distance inherent of digital age, it’s fitting that the crime that kicks off the film’s events is as cold and technical as mass panic in the markets. In this reshuffled context, Nick’s climactic line of confrontational dialogue about his quest for revenge not being “about 1s or 0s or code” carries greater thematic resonance —a computer geek finally punctures the digital divide and forces someone to confront his tech-driven inhumanity.
For all these major and minor changes, this director’s cut is still essentially the “Blackhat” we all know and (some people) love: it’s occasionally clumsy and silly, but nevertheless full of formal beauty that suggest an ocean of thematic subtext. I didn’t necessarily come away feeling like I had experienced a road-to-Damascus conversion to the “Blackhat” cause, but at the very least the director’s cut brought the film’s already considerable virtues into sharper relief.