Film Reviews

RED DRAGON

By • Oct 4th, 2002 •

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A Universal Pictures Release.
Rated R / Running time: 126 min

For the record, this is a remake. It appeared in 1986 as Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ “Hannibal” novels. From writer/director Michael Mann (Ali; The Insider), this superior low-budget cult favorite boasted no stars, was extremely well-cast and acted, tension-ridden, won a few awards, and like the outstanding Silence of the Lambs to follow five years later, was the stuff of nightmares. Creepy as hell. (Still is. Catch it on DVD).

But in the years since, our movie tastes have changed—along with our appetite for pricey production F/X and big names. So what you’ll find here onscreen is “bigger”—which doesn’t necessarily translate to better— though based on the reactions of my companions at the screening, there’s no question Red Dragon will be a box office smash. (F/Y/I It was the top B/O drawer with a $37.5 million opening-the biggest in October history.) Seems audiences are hungry for horror—no matter how half-baked or overcooked.

And Red Dragon is just that— no more than a technically proficient addition to the genre. Director Brett Rattner (Rush Hour 1 & 2) has whipped up an indifferent goulash, with ingredients boasting too much ghoul and not enough soul.

The Plot: In this pre-Clarisse prequel to Silence, Will Graham (Norton), the ex-FBI forensic specialist who put the psychotic Dr. Lecter behind bars, is lured out of retirement by Jack Crawford. The Fed Head (Keitel) wants to make use of Will’s uncanny ability to get into the mind of psychopaths and help track down another serial killer: The Tooth Fairy (for bite marks he leaves on his victims). Will, who resigned after being mentally and physically brutalized by the mad medico, reluctantly leaves his wife and young son in their downscale Florida paradise and, as Sherlock Holmes would say, “The game is afoot!”

…& let me tell you—the Tooth Fairy ain’t someone you’d want to find under your pillow! This lunatic (literally) violently, obscenely, murdered two entire families seemingly at random, but always under the light of a full moon. With the next one due in three weeks, will Will find him in time? (Whaddaya think!)

Hopkins reprises his role as Hannibal the Cannibal (he has it down pat), as does Anthony Heald as the smarmy Dr. Chilton, chief of the loony bin housing him. When Will turns up to pick Lecter’s mind for leads (“You’re the best forensic psychiatrist I know”), the brilliant madman is on-the-mark: the nutcase is a loner (he lives by himself in a gloomy Victorian manse), is probably deformed (he has a hairlip) and most likely was an abused child (his grandmother continually threatened to cut off his penis).

But there’s no mystery who he is: Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes), a psychotic who envisions himself “changing” and turning into the god-like Red Dragon he has tattooed on his muscle-bound back (a la Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man). He also considers Lecter a kindred spirit, writes to him, and in return gets Will’s family’s home address with the admonition to “kill all of them.”

Other characters include Dolarhyde’s colleague in a photo lab, Reba (Watson) who proves love is blind. (So is she.) Sight unseen, she’s smitten with the maniac, and on the premise what she can’t see can’t hurt, almost has une affaire du corpse. Then there’s Freddy Lounds (Hoffman), a crass tabloid reporter, who zealously pursues the Will-Lecter connection to the Tooth Fairy. Anything for a story, and at any cost. (His life?)

The Good News: Film’s opening is best. In a flashback preceding Lecter’s eventual capture, he’s at a concert, visibly annoyed and squirming when a flautist plays out of sync with the orchestra. Segue to Lecter’s elegant home dinner party. While serving his “specialty of the house”—an unusual appetizer, is asked by one of his delighted guests “What is this divine looking amuse-bouche?” (If you’ve read Stanley Ellins’ short story of the same name, you’ll know what to expect.) Per usual, Heald’s Chilton, continues to have his own egocentric agenda—and some of the film’s best lines. (Trying to pump Will for information on a planned book project, the unctuous doctor assures him: “The first definitive analysis of Lecter would be a publisher’s wet dream.”) And finally, in an improvement over Manhunter, this new version includes more of the book, which means getting the repugnant backstory to Dolarhyde’s perverted childhood.

The Bad News: Even with its abundance of detail, the story is too much surface at the expense of substance. Unlike such notable horror archetypes as Jaws or Psycho, it won’t keep you from stepping in the ocean, behind a shower curtain…or in this case, from making home videos (a main plot point).

Though less of a mess than last year’s Hannibal, ultimately, it disappoints. Norton and Healds are first-rate, but Hopkins, in a déjà-vu, fails to frighten as he did in Silence; and good an actor as Fiennes is, he’s miscast. His Tooth Fairy lacks the utter, abject creepiness of Manhunter’s Tom Noonan, unforgettable as one of the best of the worst weirdoes of all-time. As for the other leads, Watson and Hoffman—two of the best character actors around— do yeoman’s work, but have tough acts to follow: Joan Allen and Stephen Lang from the original, and the then-little known, highly-talented Brian Cox (L.I.E.; Bourne Identity) whose original portrayal of Lecter is, sadly, underrated. In all, I can only fault the director’s lack of expertise with scary movies. (His history till now has been with comedies).

Bottom Line: Too bad, it coulda been a contender. At best, Dragon might keep you mildly captive for a few hours, though unlike the superior Manhunter, is an also-ran. So en route home after the film for a light supper of fava beans and chianti, why not rent the original. It’s worth the detour. No bad aftertaste.


Trivia:
Manhunter’s total gross in the U. S. was only $8.62 million following its August ’86 opening. But then again, a dollar wasn’t worth as much.

For the curious, the original cast inlcuded William Peterson (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Brian Cox (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Stephen Lang (Freddy Lounds), Tom Noonan (Francis Dolarhyde and Benjamin Hendrickson (Dr. Chilton).


Credits:
Directed by Brett Rattner.
Screenplay by Ted Tally (screenplay), based on the novel by Thomas Harris;
Dir. of Photography-Dante Spinotti;
Production Designer-Kristi Zea;
Editor-Mark Helfrich;
Costume Designer-Betsy Heimann;
Music-Danny Elfman;
Art Director-Steve Saklad
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Martha De Laurentiis.

Cast:
Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter),
Edward Norton (Will Graham),
Ralph Fiennes (Francis Dolarhyde);
Harvey Keitel (Jack Crawford);
Emily Watson (Reba McClane);
Mary-Louise Parker (Molly Graham);
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddy Lounds);
Anthony Heald (Dr. Chilton);
Ken Leung (Lloyd Bowman);
Frankie Faison (Barney);
Tyler Patrick Jones (Josh Graham);
Lalo Schifrin (Conductor).

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