Since novelist Thomas Harris hasn’t seen fit to continue the Hannibal Lecter story, the studios — ever mindful of milking the cash cow to the last drop — opted to go back to Harris’ second novel, Red Dragon, in order to cook up another Hannibal stew, despite the fact that the book was already filmed by Michael Mann in 1986 as Manhunter. This, of course, has led to much critical grumbling about remaking “a perfectly fine” version of the novel.
I don’t know what movie the naysayers are referring to; for my money, there’s little indeed that is “perfectly fine” about Mann’s screen version of the book (though it’s worth noting that both Manhunter and Red Dragon were shot by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, albeit in remarkably different styles). Mann’s version is badly dated 1980s filmmaking at its worst (no surprise, since it comes from the Miami Vice man himself), complete with a tacky synthesizer score. It’s a film that would almost certainly be all but forgotten today had The Silence of the Lambs never been made. Yes, it shares the same plot as Red Dragon, but the two films are largely a study in opposites. I’m torn with grief to dash the sometimes cherished notion that low-budget movies necessarily boast more integrity than their big-budget brethren; but, folks, sometimes bigger is better. And that’s the case here.
Director Brett Ratner gives us a sumptuously mounted film that is rarely less than intensely creepy, and which boasts the kind of dream cast that only money can buy. The “minimalist” synthesizer music (in this case, read: cheap) of the original is replaced by the full orchestral sweep of a Danny Elfman score. If one persists in finding merit in Manhunter, it can only be said that the earlier film is a mere chamber piece, while Red Dragon is grand opera. Eschewing the outright horror-film tactics of Hannibal — which was much more a black-comic chiller than a thriller — Red Dragon returns to something of the mood and approach of Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Bringing back Silence screenwriter Ted Tally probably accounts for some of this.
Much of the film — perhaps most of it – works … at least up to the final act, which falls prey to the novel’s shortcomings in much the same manner that Silence of the Lambs did. The problem in both cases is simple: After spending reels and reels building up a finely wrought creepiness and tension, the stories plunge into pretty standard melodrama — and, truth to tell, the climactic “confuse the psychotic” babble in Red Dragon isn’t very far removed from having the heroine of Friday the 13th Part II sucker Jason into thinking she’s dear old mom. It’s a definite letdown to find a character as torturously complex as Ralph Fiennes’ Francis Dolarhyde reduced to the level of a machete-wielding slasher in a dead-teenager picture, but that’s pretty much what happens.
Since Red Dragon wasn’t — and wasn’t intended as — a Hannibal story, the filmmakers have refitted it with more Hannibal material. The film’s opening, for example, is back-story that details the capture and trial of Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) by agent Will Graham (Edward Norton). The results are mixed — and are indicative of the film’s flaws.
While masterfully done on most levels, the opening is also more than a little condescending. The story commences with Hannibal as a member of the audience at a black-tie performance of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. What is brilliant here is the introduction of Hannibal as the most intense and intensely alive person in the audience; what is galling is the overstated setup of his displeasure with an inept flautist (Tim Wheater). No musician this stunningly awful would ever have made it into a high school band, let alone a symphony orchestra, and it’s impossible not to feel that the film is beating us over the head because we might otherwise be too damn dumb to get it. And even if we can overlook that, the movie still topples over into the realm of the unintentionally funny — later in the film, there is a Potemkin-ish runaway flaming-wheelchair murder.
However, there is much to admire in Red Dragon — the overall disquieting atmosphere, the beautifully saturated imagery, the flawless production design and, of course, the brilliant performances of its stellar cast. Hopkins simply is Hannibal Lecter, and Edward Norton is a splendid adversary for him. No one hits a false note, but the standout here is Ralph Fiennes as tormented serial killer “The Tooth Fairy” (so dubbed for his penchant for biting his victims). It’s really much more his film than it is Hopkins’, and Fiennes’ performance alone would make it worthwhile without the movie’s other compensations. That Red Dragon is ultimately uneven and not entirely satisfying does nothing to diminish his characterization.