The Hannibal Lecter franchise of films is, as franchises go, one of the more unlikely ones; while aliens and superheroes translate to good box office, it seems more bizarre that a serial killer has become a sort of folk hero, a kind of psychotic Robin Hood who only kills those who deserve it in some way. Much as I enjoyed Hannibal, the softening of Lecter was faintly disappointing, so it pays to revisit Michael Mann's superb adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, the film that started it all.
The plot is not dissimilar to that of Silence of the Lambs. Instead of Clarice Starling, we have Will Graham (Petersen), a former FBI agent traumatised by his previous encounter with Hannibal Lecter (Cox). However, as a diabolical serial killer, Francis Dollarhyde, who calls himself 'The Tooth Fairy' (Tom Noonan) begins to commit some truly hideous murders, he finds himself having to return to work, with Lecter once again having to be consulted. That's the first half, at least; the second half drags the serial killer film into darker and more complex areas, as it follows the killer's twisted love affair with a blind woman (Allen).
So far, all the Lecter films have had excellent directors working on them, and all of them have brought their own individual styles to the projects. Mann, a director often compared to Kubrick for his use of emotional coldness and technical perfectionism, was the ideal choice for a 'thriller' that is scarcely thrilling at all, with the emphasis instead firmly on Graham and Dollarhyde as men out of place in society, with Lecter as the too-little-seen lynchpin that brings them together. Mann's films are always concerned with this personal isolation from humanity, towards a greater affinity with the natural and the remarkable. The partial exception to this is Last of the Mohicans, but even that features the same type of concentration on duty and personal achievement.
However, the film is not some sort of cold arthouse piece, despite its obviously less commercial style than its two sequels. The basic plot of Harris' book is kept more or less intact, with little major digression or excision, although Lecter himself is far more of a marginal figure than in the other books or films. It's interesting to see how parts of the film, which has never been acclaimed as Mann's best by any means, have been quietly ripped off over the years; a key sequence involving a journalist, for instance, was more or less replicated for a similar scene in 15 Minutes earlier this year. It's nothing like as flashy or audacious as Hannibal, nor is it even as operatic as Silence, but it works exceptionally well in its own right as a Michael Mann film, rather than a Hannibal Lecter film.
The performances are variable. Petersen is superb as Graham, bringing a mix of intensity and charisma to the part, and it's a shame that he never became a big star as a result. Noonan is creepy, yet strangely pitiable as Dollarhyde, and Allen, in an early part, is also excellent as the object of the killer's affection. However, Kim Greist is utterly uninspiring in the role of Graham's wife, proving that Terry Gilliam was right to all but remove her from Brazil the previous year. Brian Cox's performance as Lecter is fine in its own right, but has been so overshadowed by Anthony Hopkins' later performances that it has to struggle to be seen in its own right, although it's certainly a more low-key performance.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of this is more likely to be affected by whether you like Michael Mann's films or not, as it's far more typical, both stylistically and thematically, of his work than the other Lecter films. It's about to be remade by Brett (Rush Hour) Ratner, with the interesting casting of Hopkins as Lecter again, Ed Norton as Will Graham, and allegedly Nic Cage as Dollarhyde; however, for the time being, this version is the definitive one, and is highly recommended.
This disc is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the one reviewed by Michael Brooke here. It's certainly an improvement on the dreadful non-anamorphic BMG disc that was previously released, and it's very comparable to the R1 version. The only difference I noticed between the two were that the R1 version is THX certified, whereas this version is not; however, the picture is of a generally good quality, albeit slightly grainy at times, and with some minor print damage.
Again, it's very similar to the R1 version here. The 5.1 mix provided is not especially exciting; it's a remix of an old Dolby Surround track, and it's quite hard to see what difference it's made, if any, as surround use is limited throughout. Still, the dialogue and music both sound clear and crisp, although there is some slight sound distortion in certain scenes, which is almost certainly a fault of the original soundtrack rather than the remixing.
The extras here are more or less the same as those on the Anchor Bay single disc release, consisting of two short documentaries and a trailer; however, the UK version loses the (surprisingly lengthy) cast biographies, and gains a short photo gallery. The documentaries are both interesting, if too short; the first one is an interview with Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer, which is highly technical in nature, but has some good insight into the working methods of Mann. The second documentary is a longer series of interviews with Petersen, Cox, Allen and Noonan, although no Mann, which has some very interesting insights into Mann's working methods (my favourite was Noonan's anecdote about how, to help him get in character, Mann would sit by him in darkness for hours at a time), as well as some occasionally candid moments, such as Cox's dismissal of Manhunter rather than the (undeniably superior) Red Dragon; presumably the William Blake reference was thought to be too intellectual, although it has also been said that Dino de Laurentiis, the producer, didn't want to make a film that sounded like a Kung Fu movie.
All these are well and good, but the disc is unfortunately missing the director's cut that the R1 edition had on a second disc. Thankfully, this is less serious than it sounds; although the extended version does feature some very interesting added footage, including a coda that makes the end of the film even more resonant, the picture quality is fairly appalling, and it's more or less impossible to watch it all the way through. The 'theatrical' version provided here (with a couple of minor additions/scene deletions) is probably the best way to experience the film, and the loss of the extended version isn't that great an absence.
Manhunter is, like every other Hannibal Lecter film, a magnificent piece of cinema, and highly recommended, albeit with the minor reservation that it's probably best enjoyed if taken on its own terms. Momentum's DVD provides pretty good picture and sound quality, as well as some interesting extras, which do, however, duplicate the Anchor Bay version's. There's no reason why you would want to buy this version if you already own the R1, but it's certainly worth getting if you don't.