Red Dragon (2002)

5 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red Dragon” begins with an unnerving shot of an audience at a concert hall. The reason it’s unnerving is because of the one person we recognize before the camera pushes in on him. There’s a subtle lighting on that shot that isn’t too flashy so that we recognize right away who the guy is, but it just comes naturally. We can see that it’s Hannibal Lector, the infamous, cannibalistic psychiatrist/serial killer played by Anthony Hopkins in the role that won him an Oscar in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Seeing Lector among people, wearing a suit, is unnerving even of itself, but his emotion of disgust when he studies the one flutist playing the wrong notes is even more so.

That may be because we realize who this man is and understand that “Red Dragon” is actually a prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs.” And it’s also because the director Brett Ratner has a way of showing things as they are and yet keeping an eye for important things, like the best directors of thrillers. It’s surprising that Ratner’s previous work was directing the “Rush Hour” movies.

But anyway, what follows that first scene is something even more disturbing when you’ve studied Lector in “Silence of the Lambs”—Lector is hosting a dinner party. You heard that right—a dinner party. I don’t even want to know what he serves to his dinner guests, but they seem to enjoy it. I don’t even want to think about it.

What follows isn’t as terrifying as its great opening, but it’s still pretty suspenseful. “Red Dragon” is actually a well-put-together, gripping thriller. That comes as a surprise, because while it’s an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name, it’s also a remake of the stylized 1986 thriller “Manhunter,” by Michael Mann. I loved the original film, and that’s why I was surprised to like this remake (or more accurately, re-adaptation) just as much. Sure, it doesn’t have the same amount of style, but not all movies can be the same.

“Red Dragon” follows an FBI Special Agent named Will Graham, who has a gift for deduction (he’s like a modern day Sherlock Holmes). He goes to Lector’s house the same night as the party and tells him, as his psychiatrist, that he’s found an extra clue in the latest killings—body parts are missing from the bodies, like livers and hearts. Soon enough, he realizes that Lector is a cannibal and he’s responsible for the killings. Graham is able to capture him, but after he nearly dies.

Several years later, Will goes into retirement is called back from his family life into the field to track down a new sick serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy.” After finding some clues, Will realizes to know a serial killer is to capture one, so he goes to the prison where Lector is being held to ask Lector if he knows anything about the Tooth Fairy or if he would know what his next move would be, as a psychopath. It’s psychiatry and psychopath mixed in one, just as Lector showed in the previous film. He’ll give his answers only after he’ll share his delusions of the human mind.

These scenes are different from Lector’s talks with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs” in two ways. The first way is, Will is too smart to fall for Lector’s delusions. In “Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice pays attention and looks on with frightened awe. But in “Red Dragon,” Will takes none of that. He’ll just get the answers he needs and get the hell out of there. And the second is that there’s a constant battle of wits between Lector and Will. While in “Silence of the Lambs,” Lector grew to care for Clarice (you have your version, I have mine), Lector hates Will in “Red Dragon.” He knows that Will isn’t interested in Lector’s off-subject rambles and is still steamed that Will found a way to get him in this prison, and that stretches to the point that he actually finds a way from inside his cell to tell the Tooth Fairy where Will’s family lives. There’s a great deal of tension between these two.

Edward Norton plays the intelligent, insightful Will Graham and sells the role. Norton has a powerful screen presence shown in countless other movies and he makes a great hero for this sort of movie.

As for the Tooth Fairy, he’s played by Ralph Fiennes in a chillingly good performance. He plays the Tooth Fairy as a tortured soul fighting his emotions the way Gollum fights his double personality. One moment, the Tooth Fairy (or Francis Dolarhyde, as he’s known at his job) is a frightened man tortured by his abusive past. The other moment, he’s a twisted killer who kills as part of his own transformation from a coward to a conqueror. Whatever part of him that’s still human is kept alive by a blind woman (played by Emily Watson) who feels compassion for him.

Anthony Hopkins is still spot-on as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector, the role that won him an Oscar, this fascinating character that has room for more back-story to be told. He’s a psycho, but he’s charismatic and shares his views of the human mind with exact pronunciation and a sense of irony in his wit.

There are other characters in “Red Dragon,” like Will’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker), Will’s boss (Harvey Keitel), and memorably, the reprehensible tabloid reporter (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) who finds out more than he should know and ultimately becomes the Tooth Fairy’s latest victim. What’s engaging about “Red Dragon” is that it takes its time to develop its characters while keeping the gore at a more minimum level than you might expect. There is suspense, intelligence in Will’s way of figuring all of these things out, and Norton has a mighty screen presence that balances out Lector and the Tooth Fairy.

“Red Dragon” is a smart thriller with sharp direction, great acting, and a real sense of tension, not to mention a great, memorable music score by Danny Elfman. It’s an appropriate prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” and well-drawn-out remake to “Manhunter” and captures the right amount of menace compared to each.

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