I wonder how many people are aware that Hannibal Lecter made his first appearance not in “Silence of the Lambs” but in Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter where he was played brilliantly by veteran British actor Brian Cox? Lecter(spelled Lecktor in Manhunter)had a key supporting role in that film but times have changed and now we get “Red Dragon,” another updating of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel of the same name where Hannibal Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, gets top billing.
There’s all the difference in the world between the approaches of the two films. Manhunter was all about Will Graham, a former profiler, shocked into retirement, who hunts down a killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy.” He begins the horrific quest by seeking the help of Hannibal Lecter who Graham put away years earlier. My guess is that Brian Cox’s Lecter probably had three or four scenes in Manhunter, but Hopkins’ Lecter is much more omnipresent in “Red Dragon.” Lecter gets more scenes in this version and the film is just as much about Graham and Lecter as it is about the hunt for the killer. The biggest difference is in Lecter. He’s a pulp icon now and I have a feeling that millions of people will be cheering for him instead of Graham.
“Red Dragon” opens with the aftermath of Lecter’s dangerous capture which arose out of an awkward pause on Graham’s part while visiting Lecter at his home, culminating in a near fatal stabbing. Time has passed and Graham(Edward Norton) has moved to an isolated paradise with his wife(Mary Louise Parker) and son. Then one day, Jack Crawford(Harvey Keitel), his former boss and another retread from “Silence of the Lambs” comes to him with another murder case: “The Tooth Fairy” murders. A family has been brutally and ritualistically murdered in their home, on a full moon no less. The crime is too much for Graham to ignore despite pleadings from his wife, because after all, Graham is constantly paranoid for his family’s safety. Graham has an uncanny ability to see inside the mind of a killer. Soon, the killer, known as “Red Dragon,” becomes aware of him due to a diabolical series of events.
Then there’s the fateful meeting between Graham and Lecter which was played out by Cox and William L. Petersen in Manhunter and this time by Hopkins and Norton. Their relationship is based on grudging admiration and respect and complex hatred. Since Hopkins’ presence demands that Lecter have a bigger role in “Red Dragon,” director Brett Ratner and screenwriter Ted Tally have really beefed up the relationship between Graham and Lecter and they do a good job of showing us how much alike they are. Lecter feels that Graham is the mirror of himself, just missing that final nudge to push him over the edge. In a way, Lecter’s more puzzled by Graham than disgusted by him, but Hopkins does a good job of masking his wounded pride and the sense that he will do something bad to Graham. If Graham won’t join him, due to the fact that Graham’s not clinically insane and that he loves his family very much, Lecter will try and help the Red Dragon kill them, and in the best scene in the film, Lecter smuggles a religiously encoded message to the killer which leads to a thrilling cat and mouse game between Lecter, the cops and the killer, all based upon deception and information.
The Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde, is another interesting character in “Red Dragon,” mostly because he’s not the genetic monstrosity we saw in Manhunter but a cool, efficient machine of destruction(as played by Ralph Fiennes) who could easily pass for your next door neighbor. After his character sets the gruesome precedent of killing the family at the start of the film, we feel like he’s capable of anything. Ratner gives the other characters interesting touches and tweaks also. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds is as much a curious armchair detective as he is a slimeball reporter. There’s Reba(Emily Watson), the blind innocent who discovers that she can love Francis Dolarhyde but senses something very dark about him, much more than we saw in Manhunter. Even Graham’s wife is smart enough to learn how to use a gun. Diehard Lecter fans will be happy to see old Barney, Lecter’s favorite guard, make a cameo appearance. “Red Dragon” might be the first “prequel” in film history that has a past.
I suppose Brett Ratner seemed like a controversial and odd choice to make this film but he outdoes himself here. Maybe what “Red Dragon” has in common with the Rush Hour films is how a liberal media obsesses over interesting weirdos who themselves, would probably not feel as fulfilled if their crimes weren’t front page news. Lecter’s a media celebrity in the world of “Red Dragon” as he was in Manhunter but now that Anthony Hopkins has transformed him into everyone’s favorite cannibalistic serial killer, he has become more of an anti-hero than a villain and “Red Dragon” has a lot of fun with his celebrity. Look at a scene where Graham goes to talk to Lecter in a dungeon basement and Graham gets so close to him that Lecter can almost taste him, or when Lecter chastises Graham about his appearance and his detective work, all based on the premise that Graham was in fact, the one guy who caught him.
Is “Red Dragon” a better film than Manhunter? I don’t know. I think it stands on its own, but I wonder how much people who are intimately familiar with Manhunter will be shocked by it, although the ending is altogether different and much more realized, I think. One major advantage that “Red Dragon” has over its predecessor is its modern look. What is it about films from the 1980’s that makes some of them seem like they were made yesterday and others to seem horribly dated? I suppose Manhunter suffers some of those defects like an over synthesized pop music score, excessive blue imagery and “Miami Vice” suits. Then again, Manhunter will always be the first, if not the most famous story in the Hannibal Lecter legend. If only they knew then what we know now.