Who says they don’t make them like they used to? Brett Ratner’s latest brings to the screen a 1981 Thomas Harris novel already brought to the screen 16 years ago by director Michael Mann. Manhunter starred William L. Petersen as an FBI profiler who looked to the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter for insight in his search for a serial killer dubbed The Tooth Fairy. Mann’s film had it all- wonderful writing, fabulous acting, inventive direction and white-knuckle suspense. In retrospect, the only thing of consequence it didn’t have was Anthony Hopkins. The fine English actor Brian Cox introduced the world to the character who would later become everybody’s favorite chianti-quaffing cannibal. Now things have come full circle and all three Harris books featuring Lecter have been made into movies starring Sir Tony. What surprised me most about “Red Dragon” wasn’t the fact that it told a story already told presumably for the purpose of capitalizing on the Oscar winner’s enormous popularity. What surprised me most was the fact that it was told so well.
Who would’ve guessed the guy who gave us “Money Talks,” Rush Hour and The Family Man had what it takes to realize a thriller as smartly effective as this? Ridley Scott is one of the great directors of our time and his Hannibal provided a substantially less entertaining time. Edward Norton takes on the Petersen role. The actor’s a tad boyish in my book for the part of Will Graham and doesn’t really convey the psychological complexity Petersen brought to the character. His work here is serviceable, though, and in no way holds the movie back.
Ralph Fiennes makes a shorter, shyer, more mumbly Francis Dolarhyde than did Tom Noonan in the original. He puts his own stamp on the family-massacring maniac, however, and it’s an indisputably creepy one. Among the guy’s personal problems: he suffers from the delusion that a bizarre man/dragon depicted in a painting by William Blake is speaking to him Son of Sam-style and guiding his blood-drenched evolution into a godlike superbeing. Also, he has a hairlip which makes him unattractive to women.
Women other than Emily Watson anyway. The actress turns up as a blind coworker who initiates a romantic involvement with the nonplused Dolarhyde, a human connection which kindles a spark of humanity in him and threatens to short circuit the elaborate fantasy he’s constructed in response to an abusive childhood. Fiennes does an affecting job of suggesting the tug of war taking place within the fiend as he struggles to choose between human love and death-feuled transfiguration.
The process through which Norton and Fiennes eventually find themselves face to face is first rate cat and mouse stuff. The profiler’s intuitive leaps are as stunning to witness as they were the first time around. And, of course, there’s the piece de resistance- the scenes between the agent and his nemesis/consultant.
Thankfully, Hopkins takes things down a notch or three this time, dispensing with the in-joke kitch which undercut his performance in Hannibal. As directed by Ratner, the actor is back in classic Lecter form and, just as gratifyingly, back in the same facility wherein we found him in “Silence of the Lambs.” The director even had the great wisdom to bring back Dr. Frederick Chilton, the institution’s smarmy head administrator played deliciously once again by Anthony Heald.
While not nearly as depth-charged as the relationship between Clarice Starling and her fava figure in “Silence,” the dynamic between the mad doctor and the cop who caught him makes for some of the film’s most riveting scenes. Its final one is nothing short of popcorn genius. Pure prequel perfection.
The only downside to this delectable third course? The regrettable likelihood that Lecter fans will have to make do without dessert.