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Red Dragon (Brett Ratner) 2002
Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter character managed to scare a hell of a lot of people in Jonathan Demme’s smash hit The Silence of the Lambs, and when a sequel finally arrived several years later with Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, the approach to the character was an ironic one that turned his wicked exploits into a Grand Guignol series of darkly comic set pieces. As if the franchise has nowhere fresh to go after such a deliberate (and, in my opinion, successful) distortion of the elements that fueled Silence’s success, Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon retreats backwards, adapting once again Harris’ novel which previously served as source material for Michael Mann’s Manhunter. The problem with the adaptation - and it’s a serious one – is that it attempts to graft Hannibal’s droll view of the series’ villain and apply it to the rather serious plot line that Harris created for the novel “Red Dragon”. Hannibal only got away with what it did because it pulled out a series of characters and scenarios that were so grotesque that its gallows humor seemed the only healthy response. Harris’ novel “Red Dragon” is much less mocking, however, and the attempts to graft Hannibal’s sensibilities onto it seem a bit misguided (if inevitable, since the cat was out of the bag, and Hannibal the Cannibal is now officially “fun”). Surely enough, there are plenty of chuckles to be found in Red Dragon, and some of them seem intentional, but they essentially drain the drama from the film, making it impossible to be engaged by it on the suspenseful terms that the novel was originally intended to function.
In interviews, Anthony Hopkins doesn’t let on that he thinks his work as Lecter is truly great, and his apparent lack of enthusiasm is startlingly evident here. Instead of conveying menace, his phoned-in performance communicates only apathy. Caged up as he is for the bulk of the movie’s running time, he’s utterly castrated (and indeed only hints at his homosexuality in a blink and you’ll miss it pun in the opening sequence). Visiting Red Dragon’s Lecter feels precisely like the controlled, safe event that the film’s advertisers are selling. We come to look at him and be taunted a bit by him, but there’s no fear left in our hearts once we leave, since he’s so containable. In Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins radiated a disquieting intelligence that seemed to enable him to see past the bars of his prison cell and into our very souls. Somehow in only a few minutes Brian Cox managed to disturb us in Manhunter using many of the same lines that Hopkins does here. This Lecter can only make us cringe whenever he utters one of his awful puns. The rest of the cast fares similarly, and you can’t help but feel bummed that such a stellar ensemble (Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary Louise Parker) is essentially wasted. Several actors, most notably Fiennes and Hoffman, seem to see a comic side to their characters, but you can’t be sure if they’re really striving for an effect or just coming off wrong. Norton is just plain lousy, which must be a career first for him. He mumbles to himself incessantly and embellishes the lousy script with more Method mannerisms than it can bear. Whether you preferred Jodie Foster or Julianne Moore as Agent Clarice Starling in the other two Hopkins-starring Lecter films, you'll probably find either version preferable to the bland character Norton creates.
A few sequences (including a memorable blind date) in Red Dragon manage to build up a little humor, but the bulk of the film seems sloppy and uneven. Nothing could really qualify as scary here, since both murders seem to be as funny as frightening. It’s notable that cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who also shot Manhunter, does a better job this time around than last, but the visuals here are far from the quality of his recent work like Bandits or The Insider, and for that Ratner seems the one to blame. Nothing about Red Dragon is delivered with either an original flair or a sense of faithfulness to the source material. The film is set in the early eighties, but you’d be hard pressed to guess so much if the superimposed titles didn’t inform you of that. Everything about the Dragon’s environment feels generic, with the exception of Lecter’s cell design, which is copied directly from Demme’s film. A straightforward adaptation of Harris’ “Red Dragon” might seem a bit too routine these days, since its premise has been imitated ad infinitum. Manhunter certainly feels like a bit of a relic already. Still, stodgy is preferable to inappropriate, and Ratner’s broadly comedic flippancy only suffers in comparison to both Mann’s contemplation and Scott’s bravado.