Red Dragon Review
Will Graham (Edward Norton) is called out of retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) to help investigate a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy”. Graham has an unusual ability to think the way a killer does, but in the past the strain has been too much for him. However, for this new case, he asks for help from Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a man Graham caught almost at the cost of his life…
The story goes that Dino de Laurentiis changed the title of Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon to Manhunter because he had recently had flops with films called Red Sonja and Year of the Dragon and he was superstitious. However, it didn’t work: Manhunter flopped. (It played the 1987 London Film Festival but due to complications such as its original distributor going bust, it didn’t see a British release until February 1989.) It was Mann’s third film made for the cinema. Since then, the reputation of film and director has risen sharply, and Manhunter is now widely seen as a key American film of the 1980s. It says something about Dino’s estimation of the film that he sold the rights to the Hannibal Lecter character to the makers of The Silence of the Lambs for nothing. Since then, of course, Silence became a substantial hit and won five Oscars, putting Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Lecter firmly in the public consciousness. Last year’s Hannibal did well too.
You could argue that Manhunter was an excellent film that doesn’t need remaking, and I wouldn’t disagree. But, leaving aside one’s regard for Mann’s film, there are several reasons why a remake might be considered:
- Manhunter is a major cult film but it never made any money.
- Manhunter doesn’t look or sound anything like Silence or Hannibal. You could argue that Manhunter is very “Eighties”. I’d argue that its visual style is characteristic of Mann: few directors have such an eye for the compositional possibilities of modern architecture. Manhunter does feature a lot of then-contemporary music which does date the film superficially (though Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” is from 1968).
- Admirable though Brian Cox’s performance is, Manhunter doesn’t feature Anthony Hopkins as Lecter.
- Manhunter is now sixteen years old and much of today’s cinema audience would have been very young when it came out, presuming they were born at the time.
As director, Brett Ratner is the possible weak link in this remake. His previous films, Rush Hour and The Family Man were certainly competent and entertaining, but any competent director could have made them. So far he’s not shown himself to be a visual stylist in the way that Mann and Hannibal’s Ridley Scott are. (Then again, neither is Jonathan Demme. He’s a good director whose strengths lie elsewhere, and Silence is in many ways atypical of his work.) However, Ratner is well covered, with the screenwriter (Ted Tally) and production designer (Kristi Zea) of Silence and the DP (Dante Spinotti) of Manhunter on board. Add to that a strong cast, though some of them are miscast.
A remake we have, then. Comparisons are unavoidable, though doing my best to avoid them I have to say that Red Dragon isn’t at all bad. For much of its running time, it’s faithful to the book and the earlier film, though without its expressionist use of colour and composition and with a traditional orchestral score by Danny Elfman, which does contribute a lot to a good few jump moments. It’s a professional job of work, to be sure: Ratner has been given strong source material and collaborators, and he doesn’t mess it up. Squeamish persons may be glad to hear that this film tones down some of Hannibal’s gorier excesses, hence the lower BBFC certificate, but there’s still enough here to make some people queasy. Apart from dyeing his hair, little effort has been made to make Hopkins look younger. As Lecter is still very much a supporting role, the film adds a prologue depicting Graham’s capture of him, and a brief coda which acts as a lead-in to The Silence of the Lambs. Edward Norton, fine actor though he is, is or looks too young to be Graham: we don’t get much sense of his demons. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that Ralph Fiennes plays Francis Dolarhyde, aka The Tooth Fairy. He’s so obviously round the bend from the outset that you wonder why someone hasn’t investigated him earlier. His blind colleague Reba (Emily Watson) says that he has some rapport with their female colleagues at work, and it might have been good to have shown that. As Graham’s wife, Mary-Louise Parker has very little to do.
While it certainly has flaws, and won’t eclipse the original, Red Dragon won’t be a waste of time if you can overcome a sense of its pointlessness. It’s a decent thriller that comes laden with a great deal of baggage.