Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002)
[originally posted 4Nov2002]
It is the rare film that succeeds not because of its director, but in spite of him. The latest of such films is Red Dragon, a thriller helmed by a comedy director (Ratner is best known for the Jackie Chan vehicle Rush Hour and its sequel). It also succeeds in spite of there already being a perfectly capable adaptation of the book in Michael Mann’s wonderfully impressionist Manhunter (1986). It succeeds for one reason: The Silence of the Lambs.
Ratner reprised most of the cast from Silence who also show up in Red Dragon (Scott Glenn is replaced by Harvey Keitel, who is capable but a bit jarring), and adds on Ed Norton in the main role of Will Graham, Crawford’s golden boy before the advent of Clarice Starling. Graham, who retired from the FBI after almost being killed by Lecter, is brought back in as a consultant by Crawford (Keitel, in one of his few “normal” roles). Graham quickly becomes obsessed with the case, much to the chagrin of his wife (Mary Louise Parker) and child (Tyler Patrick Jones, last seen in Minority Report). Graham is tracking a serial killer known as The Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes), a man with his own demons to overcome (one of them voiced by an uncredited Ellen Burstyn).
Made with the lush budget and relaxed atmosphere one would expect from the newest film in a billion-dollar franchise, Ratner was able to play this one a lot closer to the vest than Michael Mann was when he filmed Manhunter back in 1986. But Mann, showing the mark of a great director, took his lack of budget and made a film that is more impressionist than it is true to the source material (not that staying true to the source material of Thomas Harris makes for good flicks; both Mann and Demme departed from the book when necessary, while Ridley Scott stuck to his guns, and the writing, in the dismal Hannibal). So while comparing the two is inevitable, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Yeah, Ed Norton is pound for pound a better actor than William Pedersen, but the Will Graham of Manhunter is a far different psychological beat than the Will Graham of Red Dragon. And the Hannibal Lecter played by Brian Cox is a different beast than the Lecter played, once again, by Anthony Hopkins.
And it is in Lecter that the movie finds its greatest failing. Hopkins, here, suffers from what I call Freddy Syndrome. Did you ever notice that, as the Nightmare on Elm Street series progressed, and Freddy Krueger became a more popular character than the kids he was slicing and dicing, he became a nicer guy? He went from an almost unintelligible “I’m gonna kill you slow!” while pursuing Nancy in the first flick to tossing off comic-book style one-liners in the King’s English by the third movie. (And as a physical marker, note that his sweater gets cleaner in every film. Really.) In a few short years, Freddy Krueger went from nightmarish serial killer to witty raconteur, the kind of guy you’d invite to a Hugh Hefner roast, as long as he put on some pancake makeup. Hopkins has the same problem. In Silence and Manhunter, you were never allowed to forget that Hannibal Lecter is not a nice guy; he’s a sociopath with a taste for human flesh, and given the chance, he’d rather dine on ladyfingers than talk to them. But here, Anthony Hopkins plays the role in a far more charming manner; in the opening scene, when he attempts to kill Graham, you expect him to say something along the lines of “sorry, old chap, rules of the game you know.” (And what you actually get isn’t all that far off.)
It’s worth seeing for Ed Norton’s performance, as is every Ed Norton film to date, but watch Manhunter first to get an idea of what it could have been—and, actually, what it once was. ***