Released in 2015 to little box office and critical fanfare despite the prominent talent both behind and in front of the camera, Michael Mann’s Blackhat was almost immediately discarded as a very minor work from a master filmmaker. For fans of the film, of which I am a very big one (sorry), Arrow Video has now upgraded this severely underrated work to 4K Ultra HD with a terrific presentation that pulls the most out of the upscaled source and delivers the most accurate highlights I’ve seen in the film, even in theaters. Also included on Blu-ray for the first time is the vastly superior Director's Cut. Recommended!
Way, way back in January of 2015, the excitement around Michael Mann’s Blackhat was relatively muted. The filmmaker behind many of the best films ever committed to celluloid had completely turned to a digital workflow for a globe-trotting thriller about people manipulating the stock market through acts of cyberterrorism. Or rather, he picked up the lofty task of making an engaging thriller about people who do their work mostly in the shadows, behind computers, in the corners of the world where they can’t be easily found. And to the credit of many of the film’s detractors, the terse geopolitics gets thrown at the audience at breakneck speed, and Hemsworth makes for a rather stolid lead that could be misinterpreted as thin. It’s no wonder that Blackhat was dismissed as a formal exercise, as Mann’s usual breathless fetishism is on full display here.
Blackhat follows the collaboration between American and Chinese officials following a cyberattack that overloaded a Chinese nuclear reactor and forces it to explode. Soon after, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is hacked and soy futures get rigged to go through the roof. A smart hacker somewhere is causing disasters that influence stock prices, cashing out while chaos rings through the world’s economy. At the FBI is Special Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), responsible for working with P.L.A. Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to hunt down the source of these attacks. But to succeed, they need the kind of hacker they’re after, and that comes in the form of Dawai’s friend Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a hacker currently in prison for hacking banks. Hathaway is granted temporary release and everyone gets to work on tracking down this cyberterrorist, but are they truly in control here?
Okay, so if you have not picked up on it already, I can talk for a very long time about this film; it’s one that deeply understands the kind of existential anxiety brought on by the dominance of everything digital in the world. In the beginning, a simple keystroke is all it takes to send a remote access tool to overheat coolant pumps and cause a nuclear meltdown. That kind of blunt note isn’t presented as such, as every keystroke is just the beginning of the transaction between the user and the network. The signal sent from the keystroke needs to reach the proper systems, with the end result more like a futile and inevitable danger that we’re incapable of preventing. So, in classic Mann fashion, he spends much of the time in his dreamy reality that’s deeply influenced by digital technology in both form and practice. The comparisons between Mann and Wong Kar-wai are apt, although the former filmmaker offers a heavily textured, dreamy digital world filled with unease and disconnection. The characters are often abruptly ejected from the network.
There’re a few different cuts of Blackhat, as well. The International Version included in this release is what played in non-US territories and contains a slightly shortened dialogue exchange considering a suspect that the FBI is studying who has ties to a Latino gang. The US Version, which is also on this release, is what American audiences saw back in 2015 but with that dialogue exchange completely intact. A very odd cut that may be because of political reasons regarding the FBI suspect’s race? I don’t think anyone knows, but these are the things that keep me awake at night.
Lastly, a Director’s Cut (that is vastly different from both other versions) premiered in 2016 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn. That version starts with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange hack rather than the plant meltdown, which has been moved to the middle of the film, and other sequences have been slightly lengthened or shortened. This cut was only shown once in theaters and popped up on FX a year later, followed by on-demand and streaming options via DirecTV and Hulu. The huge hang-up, though? The version is censored for TV and has those awful commercial break cuts. And unfortunately, yes, this version is not included in this release nor has Mann updated his statement about how there's no home video release plans for it. The man is known for constantly tinkering with his work, though what he did to Blackhat returns the film back to its intended narrative structure. That badly dubbed sequence of Chinese officials discussing the hacker’s sabotage? Gone, as Mann had to dub the characters at the last minute because the nuclear power plant attack was moved to the beginning of the US and International Versions.
Blackhat is justifiably criticized for a wide variety of reasons, especially that really bad dubbing, though it rewards upon each viewing with a story that’s less about mankind’s lack of grasp on the digital world and more about the humanity that exists within this massive network of society. Again, a very silly thing to write down, but it’s depicted with the exacting poetry of a master.
Well, Blackhat heads, I’ve returned to this review now that I’ve seen Arrow’s new Blu-ray of the Director’s Cut. I can say with certainty that this cut makes the most sense of the complicated, weird global politics pervading through other cuts, plus the aforementioned terrible dubbing has been fixed in those sequences. The film now starts during the Chicago Mercantile Exchange crash caused by the juicing of soy futures, which I find to be a much more logical place to begin this story. That being said, it still goes up against what I like so much about the Theatrical Cut. That cut throws the audience right into the middle of the action with the power plant explosion in the beginning, forcing the audience to cling onto various details to estimate how the story arrived at that point. That approach is not unlike being fed corrupted data and forcing you to draw your own conclusions.
The Director’s Cut isn’t without its many strengths, however. It makes the character motivations a bit more textured, showing how everyone is grappling with lack of control in their own way. For Viola Davis’ Carol Barrett, the uneasy relationship she has between legal duty and moral rightness ends up opening her to another mortifying conclusion: we’re never in control of how technology can be manipulated against us. That feeling of scary ethereal lightness builds throughout the story now, climaxing specifically for Carol in one of the most transfixing sequences of Michael Mann’s entire career. A dying Carol gazes at a skyscraper as it disappears into the cloudy night sky, with the camera flipping back momentarily with a medium shot of Carol’s face as she fades into oblivion. A poetic, mesmerizing moment meant to reflect the sheer magnitude of how our world has been shaped by technology.
The Director’s Cut also cuts out some specific lines of dialogue, while adding some new exchanges. Hemsworth’s waxing about his troubled past is all but gone now, which I find funny since Mann is such a sentimentalist for his silly dialogue. These little snips and additions end up adding to what is a much more propulsive version of the film. Where the Theatrical Cut was fragmented, this is a much faster and clearer work overall.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Chris Hemsworth races against time to find a cyberterrorist in Blackhat, presented here with a triple-layer (BD100) 4K Blu-ray disc that offers both International and US Versions. The Blu-ray boots up to a standard menu with options to choose the version of the film, set up audio and subtitles, explore bonus features and select chapters.
UPDATE: The newly added Director’s Cut comes on a BD50 disc and boots up to a standard menu screen as well, though I’ll note there’s no chapter selection or anything on the main menu. Again, we've only been supplied with review check discs and not final retail editions. If we see anything different here once we have final product in hand we'll update this review accordingly.
Blackhat received a very underwhelming Blu-ray release in May 2015 that looked incredibly flat and without the texture, highlights, and color that I saw in theaters. While no information was provided about the source of this 2160p, HEVC-encoded presentation, I know that Blackhat was originally finished at 2K upon its original release. Therefore it's reasonable to assume that this is an upscale, though I want to put any concerns to rest regarding the availability of better detail and texture to be mined from the sub-4K source. This is a stellar presentation that even looks better than when I saw it in theaters, but that was at the AMC Boston Common and that venue often suffers from subpar, dim projection.
Okay, personal stories aside, I was a bit blown away by how much of an upgrade this offers over the subpar 2015 Blu-ray from Universal. Many of the nighttime sequences have that immediate, texture-filled, and stark contrast look that Mann loves dearly, created by an almost full 360-degree shutter angle that exposes low-lit scenes to the most light possible. The effect is often jarring and offers a glowing, hazy feel when in motion, but you also get something heavy on realism and how the human eye is trained to see in darkness. And for Mann fans, the swirling digital textures in those sequences become poetic, especially in the shot of Viola Davis staring up at the Hong Kong night sky, seeing a skyscraper fade into the fog as if the scene was shot day for night. A transfixing thing to see in 4K.
The upgrade to 2160p only further examines the technical prowess that’s on display here, with Stuart Dryburgh using the 16:9 gate on the Arri ALEXA sensor for the majority of the film. This means there’s only a slight squeeze and the result is a 2.40:1 aspect ratio that doesn’t suffer too much from distortion at the edges of the frame. The new HEVC-encoded presentation offers a remarkably healthy bitrate throughout, and highlights are the true star here. Gone is terrible clipping from the previous release due to a subpar transfer and here is a Dolby Vision-enabled presentation that offers much deeper detail and fluidity in those high-speed sequences.
“I did the crime, I'm doing the time. Time isn't doing me.” Once more unto the breach we go with Blackhat, this time with the Director’s Cut presented in 1080p from Arrow Video. This cut was added at the last minute after many requests to Arrow, and they’ve luckily secured a master of this cut that looks terrific overall. Although it’s a tad frustrating that this didn’t get the 4K Ultra HD treatment, I’m just elated to have this cut in HD at all. All the hasty, weird edits in the Theatrical Cut have been smoothed out as well, though that may have something to do with the clearer sequence of events in this cut. Flipping back and forth between the 4K of the Theatrical Cut and the standard Blu-ray Director's Cut doesn’t reveal many differences in overall fidelity, though I give the edge to the 4K for having a better handle on highlights, contrast, and black levels. Flesh tones look good as well. The source looks to be in good condition, so I can only assume this came from a 2K master or something of that nature.
As far as I can tell, this is not the same 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that was included on the previous release, as that one sounded pretty bad in the lower end with the big action sequences. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track provided on this release offers a much more complete soundscape than the previous Blu-ray, with a big, loud soundstage for action sequences. Bullets rip through metal and echo throughout, even lingering in the lower end for extended periods of time. Directional effects abound, which is not surprising given Mann’s dedication to enveloping you in a soundscape of his creation, and dialogue does sound a bit more full than it did on the previous Blu-ray. This was a very nice surprise.
The Director’s Cut gets a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that’s very similar to the Theatrical Cut, but with some key differences. The score is much more congruent with the rearranged sequences, plus the bad Chinese dubbing in a couple of scenes has been corrected. Bass is still very appreciable, especially during the shootout in that Hong Kong container yard.
Arrow carries over all the previous extras on the 2015 Blu-ray and provides a few newly produced supplements of their own, including an absolutely incredible interview with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Everyone in the industry has a story about Michael Mann if they’ve worked with him, but Dryburgh is able to speak to just how exacting Mann is on set in achieving the look and feel of the film. Not only that, but Dryburgh also goes heavy on the tech details about the various cameras used on the production and such. A wonderful inclusion and something you should definitely watch.
The new interview with production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas is similarly great, with the designer taking us through his career up to and including Blackhat to describe how Mann works differently than other filmmakers. Another very worthwhile watch that is a nice surprise for fans of the film.
Disc 1: 4K Ultra HD Feature & Supplements
Michael Mann’s Blackhat may have flopped hard at the box office, but it rightfully gets a 4K UHD release from Arrow Video with a stunning new presentation of the film, plus a few special features to dig into as well. While it may not be in 4K, Arrow's decision to pull this from release to make the time and include the superior Director's Cut on Blu-ray was a wise choice. It's a much better version of the film, but now fans looking to complete their collections can appreciate all three cuts. Mann’s technical fetishism is properly respected by the Arrow team, and the audio presentation is a big highlight and a nice upgrade over previous releases, thus this new 4K Blu-ray release comes Recommended!
Order your copy of Michael Mann's Blackhat on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray