Why can’t we be friends? Hopkins and Norton.
Red Dragon, the third film to feature Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, that oh-so-cultured and charming serial killer with a fondness for dining out — on his victims, gourmet-style — is actually a prelude to 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. It’s better than Ridley Scott’s gratuitously gruesome follow-up, Hannibal, in that it attempts to recreate the tone established by Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar-winning hit, but lacks the unnerving in-your-face style that made Lambs such a great bone chiller.
Part of the problem is that we’ve been here before. Red Dragon, the original title of the Thomas Harris novel, was turned into Manhunter in 1986 by director Michael Mann (The Insider). Manhunter was a slick thriller, less grimy than glossy, but effective nonetheless. It starred CSI‘s William Petersen as FBI Agent Will Graham, a wonderfully creepy Tom Noonan as deranged killer Francis Dolarhyde, and Brian Cox as a subtle and sly yet menacing Lecter, who was captured by Graham and who is used (just as Clarice Starling used him in Lambs) to help snag the killer.
In the original, Lecter has two, maybe three scenes amounting to about ten minutes of screen time. In the latest Red Dragon, Lecter is given considerably more screen time — though he is cell-bound for much of it, in that eerie, dungeon-like facility in Baltimore, the corridors of which we first wandered in Lambs.
The movie isn’t about Lecter, though. It’s about Graham’s attempt to find Dolarhyde — tagged The Tooth Fairy because he takes a sizable bite out of his victims — before he murders again. From a purely narrative stand, Red Dragon is a keen look at detective work, a precursor to TV shows like CSI and Crossing Jordan. But there is something redundant about the whole affair — in part due to director Brett Ratner’s insistence to pay homage to Demme. Ratner is a perfectly competent director, but he’s not a great director. He can’t elevate the material beyond the mundane, and a few scenes that should raise goosebumps instead induce titters. The movie features fine, compelling performances from a high-pedigree cast, and has a few tense moments (including a dazzling, hold-your-breath finale that is, arguably, better than Manhunter‘s). But it lacks that special something that makes movies like this, well, special.
It may be that Ratner, best known for the two Rush Hour movies, lacks the visionary talent to carry off a project this demanding. Red Dragon feels like an overpriced, off-the-rack knock-off. It keeps harkening back to Lambs — from the cinematography to the music (composer Danny Elfman toys with, but doesn’t complete for copyright reasons, strains from Howard Shore’s memorable Lambs score). Add the fact that the plots are almost, but not quite, identical in the way that they play out (Thomas Harris is a good pulp fictionist, but Lambs was merely a refinement of a narrative structure he hit upon in Dragon), and you have a movie that doesn’t quite grip you the way it should. It kind of half-grips you, in between handfuls of popcorn.
There are some things of which to take note: Emily Watson, for instance, is stunning as a blind woman the shy, facially disfigured Dolarhyde (played in a patent madman-esque style by Ralph Fiennes) takes a romantic interest in. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman is perfect as a scuzzy tabloid reporter who has a rather sticky encounter with Dolarhyde. But Harvey Keitel, whose performances style is rush and eclectic, is miscast as FBI honcho Jack Crawford (why not bring back Scott Glenn?), and Edward Norton is too Boy Scout Goody Goody as the psychologically wounded Graham. And Hopkins? Let’s just say that he chews through the scenery like a billy goat set loose in a cardboard factory.
Red Dragon was made to make money, to cash in on the Anthony Hopkins as Lecter draw one last time. And a final scene featuring an exchange between Lecter and the icky Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald, reprising his Lambs role) sets up the Demme film. It’s a shameless coda, clearly included to help tie the three films together and thereby aid in the creation of the inevitable Extra Super Special Edition DVD Box Set to come. But the brief thirty-seconds does insurmountable damage, cheapening the experience and exposing the film for the true money-grubber it is.