Hiring a director like Brett Ratner (the man behind the magic in Rush Hour
, and Rush Hour 2
for the prequel of Silence of the Lambs
is a pretty strong guarantee that any subtly, depth or true cinematic interest that was in the book “Red Dragon” or in the Michael Mann adaptation of that book, Manhunter
, will be lost in the latest update. Ratner’s presence, however, does inject the kind of predictable commercial fun that was missing from the previous Harris adaptations, and thanks to a roster of stars so blindly that even when most miss some hit and an unusual amount of time devoted to the wrong people Red Dragon
turns out to be the most forgettable, but most forgivably enjoyable Hannibal Lecter movie.
Being familiar with the previous film incarnation of “Red Dragon” but not the novel itself, it is difficult to discern why exactly Red Dragon
goes wrong. Like Manhunter
, the movie itself is really a double narrative, one about a burnt out cop, Will Graham (Edward Norton), reluctantly returning to the serial killer job he deep down really wants to do, and midway through the film Red Dragon
introduces the serial killer himself, the Red Dragon (Ralph Fiennes) and spends a good deal of time following the tortured man around.
Dismissing the usual serial killer movie rule of leaving much of the killer to the audience’s darker imagination, both Manhunter and Red Dragon sidetrack Graham’s criminal obsessions for about an hour to try to dive into the mind of the Dragon. This twin narrative is where the film stumbles heavily, as the film relies on a kind of episodic character interaction. In the first half Graham clashes with his old cop buddy (Harvey Keitel), then with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker), then with a slimy reporter (Philip Seymour Hoffman), then with Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). A little bit later the Red Dragon is introduced and we watch him meet a lovely blind girl (Emily Watson), meet the slimy reporter, and finally he meets Graham. Either Mr. Ratner has no idea how to direct actors of this quality or this series of meetings and yet more meetings were filmed out of sequence and after a long time lapse as their tone and their quality vary wildly. Norton’s half of the story is full of the typical meticulous police work that gave Manhunter
its rather subtle psychological pressure, but all the actors involved tread water. Both Mr. Keitel and Ms. Parker can be forgiven for being quality actors shoehorned into minor background character roles, but Hoffman and Norton’s work are redundant on far better performances in far better movies.
The burnt-shell of a man Graham is suppose to be, one that was driven crazy by previous work with Lecter and yet is undeniably drawn to the criminal mind is, if not original, at least the perfect spearhead to drive forward a thriller about societal outcasts (and Red Dragon
sure if full of them), but the only thing that gives away the nature of the character is Norton’s unshaven face and exhausted look. Anthony Hopkins on the other hand seems to be off in his own movie, expanding on the over the top camp level he took Lecter in Hannibal and is thoroughly enjoying himself (and his ever increasing paychecks evidently). By now all his scenes are played for laughs and unblinking money shots (Lecter’s role in Manhunter
, played with nonchalant menace by Brian Cox, was minor, subtle, and unforgettable), and unfortunately Red Dragon is evidence of the full evolution of the Lecter character with the American public: first he was the villain they hated but where drawn to, then the villain they rooted for, and now the friend they joke along with. His presence in the film is a wacky blast of bewildering humor that fits nowhere in Graham’s struggle to remain sane, nor in the development of the Red Dragon and his methods.
Meanwhile over on the Red Dragon side of things, if Ratner and screenwriter Ted Tally were going to add so many more scenes of Lecter to satisfy the public they should have at least devoted more of the movie to the bizarre relationship that springs up
between Reba, the blind cynic who falls in mutual love with Ralph Fiennes’ nutcase. Though the psychology of Fiennes’ Red Dragon is given a passing glance at best (his grandmother abused him as a child and now he’s a serial killer, yeah that explains it), Ralph Fiennes performance is terrifyingly sincere, and in his moments of passion, with his eyes piercing and his voice utterly devastating in its absoluteness he easily surpasses the Lecter from this film and Hannibal in producing palpable terror. When he meets Reba, someone who sees and thinks she understands how insecure he is (the heart behind their relationship is so ridiculously old fashioned it almost goes down smoothly) his amazement of her acceptance and the sudden appearance of a woman who is not meant to be his victim creates a desire in him that conflicts with those pesky mental needs of a serial killer. Watson and Fiennes truly burn the film up, which devotes its last third to their twisted relationship and Graham’s quest to save the next set of victims is completely eclipsed by the only two actors in the film who seem to not only understand their characters but do something interesting with them. The suspense and thrills that Red Dragon
was missing in its first hour are suddenly sparked to life when Reba enters the picture and everything switches gears to focus on the Dragon. This barely saves the film, which contains few understandably motivated characters, and even fewer thrills (towards the end Ratner even resorts to ridiculous Friday the 13th horror movie conventions), an overdose of humor, and a director who obviously gave the actors free reign with their characters to the determent of most of the film.
As Red Dragon
hummed pleasantly but non-threateningly through its first hour of police work, boring dialogue and now routine Lecter visits, it became painfully clear that the Lecter series was going the way Tom Cruise wants Mission: Impossible
to go: new director each time, new style. Sure Hannibal
and Red Dragon
are different than Silence of the Lambs, and expecting these films to be as good as the original is ridiculous, but here Ratner can’t seem to even keep a steady tone. What are we going for? Dark comedy? Police thriller? Gosh-gee conversion of a serial killer? I wish someone would just go B-movie buck wild with gore and camp all over the place just to spice this trilogy up, or take their time and build some goddamn atmosphere-but now we’ve completed the all of Harris’ work for good, book ending an incredibly good thriller with a stylistic and thematic misfire in Hannibal
and a pedestrian thriller attached to cast and a plot of fluctuating interest in Red Dragon
. My solution: rewatch my Silence of the Lambs
dvd and make sure to see the next films Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson are in.