"Blade Runner" (1986)
What's It About? A rain-soaked future noir that follows a private investigator named Deckard (Harrison Ford, even grouchier than usual) who is tasked with hunting down a small squad of "replicants" (robots posing as humans). Bounty hunting and existential philosophical questions collide, beautifully, all under Ridley Scott's obsessively watchful eye. Based on a novel by substance-abusing futurist Philip K. Dick.
Why Did It Get Cut? Has there ever been a single movie with as many different cuts in circulation? When a Blu-ray reissue happened a few years ago, all the cuts were included, making it a one-movie box set. The international version, which was released alongside the domestic cut, is only a minute longer, with many sequences that are virtually indistinguishable (except with some additional violence). More importantly, this version retains all of the horrible stuff about the original theatrical cut, namely Ford's listless narration and the absurd happy ending that has Deckard driving away with Rachael (Sean Young), who improbably survives because she has "no termination date." Ending a movie as weird and wild and confrontationally existential as "Blade Runner" with a shot of Ford and Young driving through bucolic outtakes from "The Shining" is absolute nonsense on either side of the Atlantic.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? They're virtually indistinguishable. There's more blood that gushes out of Tyrell's eyes as he's being smooshed by Rutger Hauer, and some additional gore when a nail goes through Hauer's hand, but besides that, they're the same, for better or worse. The "international cut" is now one of a half dozen versions you can watch on that Blu-ray box set. In Scott's introduction to this version, he says, "This is the version that was available on videotape and laserdisc for many years, during which time the film found a new audience." Well, for that, at least, we have to be grateful.
"The Professional" (1994)
What's It About? In Luc Besson's charmingly junky "The Professional," a corrupt DEA agent (played with howling intensity by Gary Oldman) murders the entire family of a business partner … or so he thinks. A young girl named Mathilda (an already gifted Natalie Portman) survives and seeks the guidance and mentorship of Leon (Jean Reno, essentially reprising his earlier role from Besson's "Nikita"), a "cleaner" who lives in her building. She wants to exact bloody revenge for the murder of her family. Also at one point she dresses up like Madonna.
Why Did It Get Cut? For time, mostly. The domestic cut of "The Professional," which was referred to as "Leon" overseas, ran 110 minutes. The international version was 133 minutes, while an even longer "uncut" variation ran 136 minutes. The bulk of the material was cut following a somewhat disastrous Los Angeles test screening of the international version and most of the footage came out of the movie's second act. This included sequences depicting Mathilda going out on assignments with Leon and additional material that depicted their bonding (which, honestly, adds to the somewhat creepy nature of the relationship, since this is the version where she propositions him). One hundred and ten minutes seems plenty long for this kind of movie.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? The shorter version isn't as good, this is fundamentally true. Audiences had trouble stomaching some of the more pedophilic sequences that are preserved for the longer version, but these sequences are key. The relationship between a little girl who was just witness to her entire family's murder and a man who is paid to kill people is pretty fucked up; the fact that it has sexual overtones shouldn't be a surprise. At the time the "more poignant and sensitive" (according to Variety) version is what Besson would have preferred to release stateside, but since then he has stated that he is happier with the shorter version. In 2000 he told U.K. paper The Guardian that the domestic version was "my director's cut, no one asked me to cut it." Keep in mind, though, in the same interview he said that he was only going to direct ten movies. So far he's made fifteen. His sixteenth is currently in production.
What's It About? Set in a fantastical, dystopian future, former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam chronicles the life of a worker (Jonathan Pryce) who works in a dreary job while trying to avoid the clutches of a maniacal government system and connect with the very literal woman of his dreams.
Why Did It Get Cut? A movie that almost has as many different cuts as "Blade Runner" (on the commentary on the recent Criterion edition, Gilliam calls the cut "the fifth and final version" of the movie), when the film was originally released it came out overseas as a 142-minute epic of social satire and bleakly dark comedy. This didn't impress Universal, who was heading up the domestic distribution. Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg commissioned a new cut of the film for theatrical distribution, which has since been nicknamed the "Love Conquers All" version. This version, intended for American audiences, featured a happy ending that suggested the dire fate of our main character was, in fact, a dream, as well as a severely truncated running time of 94 minutes. After screening a longer version of the movie (that ran 132 minutes) for select journalists in Los Angeles (a move that was actively against Universal's wishes), the movie ended up winning the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Picture. This caused Sheinberg and Universal to cave and finally release that version to the masses. While not a runaway financial hit, it did go on to become a bona fide cult classic, in part because of the battle that raged behind the scenes, a battle that is lovingly chronicled in the aforementioned Criterion edition as part of its voluminous collection of special features.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? The shorter version is, of course, an atrocity. It neuters the intent of the film, replacing the sharp satire with bland platitudes. It's also not as exciting or weird; you don't have enough time to soak up the bizarre futuristic world that Gilliam (with screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown) created. Since the American release, Gilliam has gone back and re-released a variation on the longer, international cut (the version that appears on the Criterion disc), which seems to be the version he is the happiest with and contains a wonderful opening sequence that is sunnier and more vibrant than the stark opening that was affixed to the international cut.
"Red Cliff" (2008)
What's It About? One of the more epic epics you're likely to ever see, this stunning return-to-form for director John Woo is set at the end of the Han Dynasty, and culminates in the Battle of the Red Cliffs, a year-long war that raged in ancient China. Like the similarly embattled "The Grandmaster," "Red Cliff" stars Tony Leung.
Why Did It Get Cut? "Red Cliff" got cut because it was long. Like really fucking long. Like release-in-two-parts long. The first half of "Red Cliff" was released on July 10, 2008, while the second installment wasn't released until January 7, 2009. (A Hollywood equivalent would be something like the first two "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels or the pair of "Matrix" sequels, except much, much cheaper.) The total running time for "Red Cliff" was 280 minutes. This was unacceptable, even in the relatively niche realm of foreign language action epics (the film was acquired by Magnolia Pictures). The movie's total length was whittled down to 148 minutes, which is still long but only clocks in at 8 minutes longer than either half of the original film. In some regions the name was even changed, from "Red Cliff" to "The Battle of Red Cliff." This title is actually more fitting, since the truncated version focused on the actual battle while the elongated one had more to do with the players and the outside forces leading up to the struggle.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? We have never seen the shorter version, but while watching "Red Cliff" in all its unedited glory, we tried to mentally peg things that would have been removed: subplot about a wild horse? Check. The dozens of characters, many whom were defined solely by their actions in battle? Most were undoubtedly removed. The uncut version of "Red Cliff" is an unwieldy beast for sure, at turns hugely exciting and oddly philosophical, but its unwieldiness is what makes it so dazzling. John Woo staged a comeback on an epic scale (it was the most expensive Asian-financed film of all time) and he succeeded, marvelously (breaking box office records, at least in China).
"Terminal Station" aka "Indiscretion Of An American Housewife" (1953)
What's It About? An Italian man (Montgomery Clift, right) has an affair with an American woman (Jennifer Jones). Things don't work out.
Why Did It Get Cut? "Terminal Station" was a notoriously difficult production, stemming largely from the fact that David O. Selznick insisted that this Italian co-production be a starring vehicle for his beautiful wife, Jennifer Jones. Why he insisted on hiring Vittorio De Sica, whose Italian neorealist masterpiece "Bicycle Thieves" doesn't exactly scream "commercially viable melodrama," might be the movie's greatest mystery. Selznick fought De Sica every step of the way, with the filmmaker simply agreeing on every point that Selznick brought up (he even pretended to read the 50-page missives that Selznick would send, even though the director spoke little English and read even less). Even though the final running time came in at a swift 89 minutes, Selznick was unhappy and whittled it down further: to a titchy 64 minute cut that was widely derided (even by Clift, whose allegiance lay fully with his director). The film was later restored, and reappraised, by Criterion.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? No. The shorter version robs the movie of all of its emotional intensity and palpable sense of unease. In the longer version you watch a romance falter; the shorter one plays like a greatest hits reel (you can watch both on the Criterion edition). Like so many productions that have found themselves in troubled waters (sometimes literally), the behind-the-scenes story ultimately trumps whatever ended up on screen. God knows it didn't help Selznick's marriage.