It’s a film with a suspenseful and taut storyline, exceptional performances, an amazing visual sense and not 1 but 2 fascinating villains. It probes the deviant and evil mind with some of the most compelling police procedures ever captured on film. It features a tortured hero who must confront the darkest aspects of his being in order to save innocent lives…and it’s damn fine entertainment.
For the uninitiated (all three of you), Red Dragon was the first book in the Hannibal Lecter series. Michael Mann adapted it into Manhunter in 1985, which did not do great at the box office but developed quite a cult following. “Silence of the Lambs,” as we all know, went through the roof, made Hannibal Lecter a household name and resuscitated Anthony Hopkins’ career. It’s campy follow-up, Hannibal was widely considered a disappointment, but did enough business to keep Lecter a viable commodity, however there were no more books to adapt. So Hollywood, in all it’s (economic) wisdom, decided to make Red Dragon again, less than 20 years after Manhunter was released. Ted Tally (screenwriter of “Silence”) would pen the script, Hopkins would reprise Lecter, Ed Norton would take the lead of Will Graham and Ralph Fiennes would portray serial killer Francis Dollarhyde-fine talents all, but then came the choice of director: Brett Ratner (director of the suspense classics “Money Talks” and the Rush Hour films-as “Sesame Street” used to say, “one of these things doesn’t belong here…”).
Similar to Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake, this film begs only one question: WHY? And, just like that film, the only answer I can come up with is money. Ratner has stated over and over again that his Red Dragon would be more faithful to the book and radically different than Manhunter. Well, he’s right and he’s wrong: Red Dragon still contains a majority of the exact same dialog as Manhunter, but it severely lacks the visual misc-en-scene and atmosphere of dread that Mann’s film conveyed…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The plot of “Red Dragon/Manhunter” is actually deceptively simple: Retired Special Agent Will Graham, the man who captured Hannibal Lecter, is called back into service to help track down a new serial killer, Francis Dollarhyde (dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”), before he strikes again. Along the way, he consults with Lecter for help and Dollarhyde begins a relationship that may break him from his vicious cycle. It’s the execution that marks the difference between these films. In Manhunter, Graham is a tortured soul who has an almost psychic ability to get into the mind state of a killer and figure out their modus operandi…his problem is controlling those impulses (as the film’s tag line stated, “When you enter the mind of a killer, be sure you can get out”). In Red Dragon, Graham’s ability comes as flashes of insight, but the concept of his similarities to his prey is only dealt with as window dressing-Norton’s Graham is not truly tortured, he’s a guy with a gift who’s reluctant to get back in because he got stabbed. Fiennes’ never truly conveys the presence or sense of killer instinct that Tom Noonan did so effortlessly in Manhunter. And finally, for all the hype, hoopla and awards given to Hopkins, I still feel that Brian Cox conveyed more menace and intellectual superiority as Lector in a fraction of the screen time.
Visually, the film is instantly forgettable-even if not compared to Manhunter (which, being a Michael Mann film, is a visual wet dream). Ratner seems to be trying so hard to escape his comedic roots that the film has no stylistic imprint at all. The normally effective Danny Elfman, for the second time this year, delivers a score that doesn’t quite work (the other being Spider-Man): when Graham enters a bloody crime scene, Elfman lets loose with a cue that seems more at home in a William Castle or Hammer Horror film. Tally does a decent job with the script, but most of it is from “Manhunter,” so it’s actually a double-adaptation.
Despite what I’ve stated, there are some moments worth mentioning. Red Dragon does provide background information that fleshes out things that were skated over in Manhunter, such as the first trap set for the Tooth Fairy, Dollarhyde’s access to a drugged tiger and more specific information regarding the “Red Dragon” itself. In spreading out Dollarhyde’s relationship with the blind Reba, it seems a little more feasible than the whirlwind “Hi how ya doing-checkout this tiger-hey let’s fuck” approach from Manhunter. The ironic thing is, if you could add these embellishments to the director’s cut of Manhunter, you’d have a damn near perfect movie. The main problem is that a majority of Red Dragon is a word for word redux of Manhunter, but without that film’s strengths and the film’s finale aptly demonstrates why Mann changed it in his version (the infamous “the killer’s still alive” cliche rears it’s ugly head once again).
I realize that ultimately all I’ve said is moot-people will go see this film and most of them could care less about Manhunter, but it’s a shame that today’s audiences will accept a mediocre remake because it’s new and massively hyped (there has been quite an outcry at scifi.com and other websites regarding the omnipresent flash ads for the movie that can’t be closed until they finish) as opposed to renting or buying Manhunter, but I guess that’s just the way things are now.
FINAL ANALYSIS: RENT MANHUNTER INSTEAD!