There is no convincing artistic reason for “Red Dragon” to exist. After all, Thomas Harris’ first novel featuring the now-iconic character of brilliant and evil Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter had already been brought to the big screen with style and suspense only 16 years ago by Michael Mann in the now-cult fave Manhunter. But that term “cult fave” explains exactly why producer Dino DeLaurentiis felt the urge to go back to the well. After all, only a small fraction of those who’ve seen Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning 1991 blockbuster “The Silence of the Lambs” and last year’s equally profitable (though not equal in any other respect) Ridley Scott-helmed sequel Hannibal had ever seen Manhunter, so there are still millions left to be milked from this highly lucrative franchise. The strictly commercial intent behind this new “Red Dragon” announces itself most loudly and clearly with the name of its director: Brett Ratner, whose filmography features not a shred of art but a whole lot of commerce (namely, the Rush Hour franchise).
Considering it goes without saying that Ratner isn’t nearly in the league of a Demme, Scott or Mann, it’s a bit of a surprise that “Red Dragon” does in fact work, albeit with considerably less style. As far as faceless, conventional popcorn pulp goes, the film is certainly diverting. It definitely helps that Ratner has assembled a ridiculously top flight cast, led by Edward Norton, who takes over from “Manhunter”‘s William Petersen as FBI agent Will Graham. Years after a confrontation with Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins, again) resulted in the mad doctor’s capture, a physically and psychologically scarred Graham has long abandoned law enforcement for a quiet life in Florida with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker, in for Kim Greist) and young son. But not for long, as FBI director Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel, in for Manhunter‘s Dennis Farina and “Silence”‘s Scott Glenn) drags Graham back into the game when a new string of grisly murders begins, caused by a man the tabloid press dubs “The Tooth Fairy” (Ralph Fiennes, in for Tom Noonan).
There isn’t much in “Red Dragon” that hadn’t already been done in Manhunter, and the few deviations Ratner and “Silence” screenwriter Ted Tally make aren’t necessarily improvements. Central to most of these changes is the character of Hannibal; a prologue neither in the first film nor Harris’ novel shows Graham’s capture of Dr. Lecter, and this the only bit of new Hannibal footage that works. In Manhunter and the novel, Hannibal is used sparsely at most, and the extra screen time he’s given here is less for story or character sake than just to give Hopkins more opportunity to trot out his schtick. And schtick is, sadly, what his interpretation of the role has become after three films; it’s difficult to remember, in light of his campy, hammy work in this and Hannibal that Hopkins was so chilling and creepy in “Silence.” Now, like Freddy Krueger before him, the character’s theatening, frightening quality has been blunted as his propensity for the morbidly cheesy wisecrack has increased–all the more inexplicable in the case of this film since it takes place prior to “Silence.”
While there is more Hannibal here than in previous incarnations of “Red Dragon,” he’s still very much a secondary character in the grand scheme, which, on the whole, is watchable and entertaining, particularly due to the performances. Fiennes is both menacing and surprisingly sympathetic in the more fleshed-out role of Francis Dolarhyde (even if he’s far from “ugly,” as the character is often called); Philip Seymour Hoffman is amusingly schlubby as skeevy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. Less impressive is an overly bug-eyed Emily Watson as Dolarhyde’s blind love interest Reba and the too-young Norton–as ragged and tired as he looks, there’s a certain world-weariness that can only come with age–but they get the job done. That last statement more or less describes “Red Dragon”: it gets the basic job done, nothing more.