Red Dragon

The most fun part of Red Dragon is over before the opening credits end, but don’t take that as a slam at the rest of the 124 minutes; it’s just that screenwriter Ted Tally (who also adapted Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs) has imagined a sort of “never-before-seen” Hannibal Lecter in the moments before he got caught and put away for nine consecutive life sentences. Lecter, sporting a dashing little ponytail (that sounds really wrong for him, but trust me, it looks right), amuses his fellow Baltimore Orchestra board members over a concoction of his making. Later, dogged FBI agent Will Graham shows up at his door with a hunch that the killer that Lecter has been helping him profile may be … eating bits of his victims. Lecter, in one of Anthony Hopkins’ hilarious career-best moments, just about keeps a straight face. It’s all terribly nudge-nudge-wink-wink, a bit of lagniappe for the fans, and it goes down like Chianti.

The rest of Red Dragon hews fairly close to Harris’ 1981 source novel, which was filmed before, in 1986, by Michael Mann as Manhunter. Will Graham, played with restless, fidgety intelligence by Edward Norton, is scarred from his encounter with Lecter and has “retired” from the FBI. Due to his unusually empathetic intuition — he can get inside a serial killer’s mind and imagine his next move — Will is still much in demand, which explains why FBI director Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) shows up at Will’s door with photos of two murdered families. A maniac has been butchering entire households during the full moon; the next lunar cycle gives them a short deadline to catch the killer — whom the tabloids dub “the Tooth Fairy” — before he strikes again.

Entrusted with this leg of the franchise — a prequel whose events unfold before Lecter makes the acquaintance of Clarice Starling — director Brett Ratner, known mainly for Chris Tucker vehicles, doesn’t embarrass himself or the many Lecter fans nervously watching his progress. The film’s look is heavily indebted to Silence; Ratner hired that film’s production designer, Kristi Zea, to rebuild Lecter’s glass cell, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who shot Manhunter) apes Tak Fujimoto’s drab, gun-metal tones for Silence. Aside from one bit of shock-cut cheesiness, and a Danny Elfman score that sometimes appears to be shrieking along on its own wavelength and leaving the movie behind, the movie has been crafted smoothly and with minimum schlock.

If Ratner fails anywhere, it’s in the scenes between the disfigured killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), and his newfound lady love, blind coworker Reba McClane (Emily Watson); this odd, blossoming romance, with its intimations of perversity and dread, deserves David Lynch at his peak¹, but Ratner simply photographs it. Still, hell, even I could turn a camera on and get great stuff from Fiennes and Watson. Working with Tally’s script, which lets them breathe and relate, they make you hope against hope that the movie will break free of Harris’ story and fashion a happy ending for Dolarhyde (who, having felt love for the first time, is trying fiercely to put his demons down) and Reba (who, as personified by Watson, could melt the heart of a statue).

Meanwhile, Will is on Dolarhyde’s trail, aided by tidbits from the suavely jeering Lecter. If Silence was Lecter in love, and Hannibal was Lecter at play, Red Dragon is Lecter in stasis, quietly furious and tensed for action, any action; this is the Lecter who could chew out a nurse’s tongue while maintaining a pulse of 85. Hopkins, this time, gives us a Lecter who keeps himself amused by playing vicious little games (one assumes he might have done likewise to Clarice if she had not so enthralled him). Norton, in the movie’s one real failing as compared to Manhunter, doesn’t suggest, as William Petersen did, that the closer Will gets to capturing Dolarhyde the more driven and callous he gets, but for the most part he gives us a freakishly intuitive agent exhausted by his own powers of deduction.

I wasn’t sure that another adaptation of Red Dragon was necessary (I think Manhunter is just fine); it smacks suspiciously of Universal’s desire to put out the inevitable Hopkins-as-Lecter DVD 3-pack. But if Lecter’s shadow world must be visited again, let it be this way, and with a superlative cast (I haven’t even mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman as the loathsome reporter who gets on the bad side of Will and Dolarhyde), and not as a tired sequel taking place after the events of Hannibal. As it is, this movie brings things full circle; it ends with one final wink to the fans, completely unnecessary and a bit too cute, but I enjoyed it anyway. Red Dragon will replace Silence of the Lambs in no one’s heart, but at least it earns its place in that DVD 3-pack.

¹Incidentally, Lynch was offered Manhunter to direct. Repulsed by the material, he turned it down.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, prequel, remake, thriller

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