Red Dragon

October, 2002, Thriller

Directed by:Brett Ratner

Starring:Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Heald, and Frankie Faison


Sequels, prequels & remakes; the unholy trinity of moviedom. In the case of novelist Thomas Harris' gore-splattered triology involving Hannibal Lecter, all the possible options have now been exhausted. Most filmgoers were first introduced to Anthony Hopkins' appallingly attractive cannibal in Silence of the Lambs, or its sequel, the far gorier and much less effective Hannibal. Now comes this version of the first book in the series, again featuring the smarmy mass murderer whose passion for violent death verges on the orgiastic. The film, which features appearances by a host of exceptionally talented actor/stars (Ed Norton, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Ralph Fiennes & Philip Seymour Hoffman) displays competent workmanship and good pacing while remaining faithful to its source, and yet…….

Long ago, (in the presidency of Ronald Regan) an earlier version of Red Dragon, (entitled Manhunter) was made by writer/director Michael Mann, whose visual style and taunt sense of urban isolation have provided audiences with films such as the under-appreciated The Insider, a blistering, revisionist version of  The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and the television series "Miami Vice”. Mann's original treatment of this material starred William Peterson, (now famous as the hearing-impaired criminologist in the hit CBS series "CSI"), a role now taken by Norton. Both bring a quiet sense of reflection to the role of an ex-FBI agent called out of retirement to use his disturbingly empathetic sensibility to track down a serial killer who's butchering whole families on a lunar cycle. In doing so, the detective seeks assistance from the master himself, Hannibal Lecter, currently incarcerated in the kind of surreal mental facility only a feverish imagination could conceive. Lector's cat and mouse assistance to the Norton/Peterson character hides the good doctor's abiding desire to do in the man who put him behind bars, and the devices he employs to enlist the elusive killer currently being tracked down by the authorities forms by far the most interesting plot twist in the film.

Director Brett Ratner, whose previous work includes music videos and the commercially successful Rush Hour series, turns his cast loose with pleasing results; Watson is especially fine as the blind girl who provides some depth and sympathy to the demented mass murderer Norton’s pursing, Hoffman is appropriately sleazy as a tabloid journalist who gets more than he bargained for as he dogs Norton's efforts to reap juicy headlines, and Keitel brings a quiet credibility to his role as Norton's boss. But Ratner borrows a few too many transition shots from Lambs, (in which various aircraft are dispatched hither and yon to advance the action). And why cast Britain's Ralph Fiennes, (Schlindler's List, Quiz Show, The English Patient) as the crazed villain? He possesses neither the physical bulk nor the accent for the role, and we've grown so accustomed to the intelligence this actor radiates it's simply not possible to accept him as a brooding, socially inept psychopath. 

Ratner smoothly sketches this twisted character's childhood and does another clever turn, (under the credits) as he fills the audience in on some of the blanks in the life and career of his F.B.I. pursuer. If there's nothing particularly new in this supercharged thriller, it's at least capable of providing its formulaic excitement in a competent fashion. But it can't hold a candle to Lambs and in my view doesn't surpass Mann's Manhunter

A suggestion? Rent the earlier version and see for yourself.        

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