Audiences waited ten years for the return of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, and so the hype for the third (or first) film was a little more muted than Hannibal. Late in 2000 and early in 2001, I was looking forward to Hannibal, but not nearly as much as some people because I had read the book, and frankly, the book sucked. With Red Dragon, the relative prequel to the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, I knew two things: It was going to be better than Hannibal, and a whole lot better than that 1986 piece-of-trash Manhunter.
Red Dragon is of course based on the book of the same title by Thomas Harris, the man who invented the most infamous and marketable serial killer of them all. Red Dragon is also a remake of a Michael Mann (The Insider) film called Manhunter. Granted, Red Dragon Brett Ratner says that his version is more true to the book and is not really a remake of Manhunter, but it is. Manhunter had the same story and the same characters; Red Dragon puts new actors in and there we go. It's a remake, Brett. Get over it. Anyway, Manhunter was God-awful. Some critics think it is spectacular for some reason, but to any normal moviegoer that has actually seen this forgotten film, it is a piece-of-crap that should be burned upon sight. It was boring, slow and a little psychedlic; who knows, perhaps Mann was on drugs while he was filming it.
Thankfully, Red Dragon is much, much better. Finally, audiences are allowed to see the capture of Hannibal Lecter, and then we go on from there as former FBI Agent Will Graham returns to hunt down The Tooth Fairy. Ratner is smart in avoiding the onslaught of gore that drove so many people away from Hannibal, but does not censor them either. We are given many disturbing and very sad images of a family - including children - butchered, their eyes replaced with mirrors. In this sense, Red Dragon has a feel similar to Seven, where there is something dark and horrifying going on behind the scenes; in Hannibal, that element was lost.
Let's just face facts and say that the story is concrete. It has spurred two movies, two sequels - one of which won many awards including Best Picture - and even if that weren't the case, we'd still know that done right and with good acting, any serial killer movie like this can be quite effective.
The acting... Now here is an interesting situation. Red Dragon is filled to the brim with acting talent - Edward Norton, whom I consider to be one of the best actors in the world, Ralph Fiennes, another exceptional talent, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and, of course, Anthony Hopkins. All of these actors can be great, and for the most part they are, but there are a few poorly-written characters. Norton, who is good but not great in this movie, has what it takes to be a detective, but his character is treated rather slapdash. In Manhunter, Michael Mann focused too much on the mind of Agent Graham, and in Red Dragon, Ratner spends too little dwelling on what is going on inside this man's head. Here a man who was nearly killed by Hannibal Lecter, and though Norton tries to show it in his eyes, Ratner never really looks at the tortured soul within. Graham as a character, though likeable, seems rather shallow. As for Hopkins, he is decent as Lecter, but it is obvious that he is growing tired of the role. In The Silence of the Lambs, he was the very essence of intellectual darkness; he was evil and overpowered whichever scene he was in. Here, (and more so in Hannibal), he has been reduced to a one-line machine. He's still smart, but the audience takes him for granted now; the magic is gone, and he is a piece of entertainment. This is fine, but compared to what he was in Lambs, he is nothing now. The real powerhouse of the movie is Ralph Fiennes, who does a 180 degree turn from any role he has done before. His British accent is gone and he is one screwed up bastard; his sickness dominates the screen.
Red Dragon is a good movie, and the ending is well done. Ratner looks like he is about to pull off a rather disappointing conclusion, when suddenly it gets much better. Yes, it is a good movie, much better than Hannibal, and of course a thousand times better than Manhunter, but it is nowhere near the level attained by The Silence of the Lambs. The truth is that no matter how hard one tries, they will never be able to reach that plateau set by Lambs. In retrospect, Red Dragon is a very good film, but it has a sister that it could never beat.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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