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Nik Huggins

Published January 1st, 2003 | by Nik Huggins

Red Dragon Review

Far from renouncing the role of Dr Hannibal Lecter for good, Anthony Hopkins has launched himself into another sequel (or should it be sequel-prequel, prequel-sequel or remake of a sequel-prequel!?) to The Silence of the Lambs, a little over a year since the disappointing Hannibal apparently concluded the saga. It seems that the Hollywood powers-that-be nailed down Hopkins for one last stay in a secure mental unit whilst he was in a compliant mood.

Red Dragon is based on the Thomas Harris novel in which Lecter first appears, although he is yet to become the principal focus as in The Silence of the Lambs and especially Hannibal. Instead the recently caged, and very bitter Lecter, is assigned to help the FBI and specialist homicide investigator Will Graham (Edward Norton) hunt down one of Lecter’s biggest fans, who also just happens to be a serial killer!

Red Dragon was first made into a film in 1985 by Michael Mann (director of Heat) entitled Manhunter, this was a much looser, more stylised affair, arguably a victim of its time (it sometimes looks like a feature length episode of “Miami Vice”, complete with lashings of designer stubble and loose-fit linen suits) but also a very taut and unnerving insight into the mind of a psychotic murderer . The “remake” is much more faithful to the novel, reintroducing a number of scenes that were deemed superfluous in Manhunter. The characters too appear much closer to their literary counterparts. Yet in its way Red Dragon is much more conventional, and as a result loses some of the intricacies that made Manhunter so interesting.

Lecter’s presence is much more prominent. Instead of a chilling apparition lurking in the foreground of a handful of scenes (as with Brian Cox’s portrayal in Manhunter) Hopkins’ Lecter, characteristically, looms over the entire film. His actual appearances seem to have multiplied, and his menace lingers on throughout the scenes in which he doesn’t appear.

This is mainly due to the absence of a genuinely terrifying personification of the “Red Dragon” himself. So much of the tension that should be generated is fuelled by the triangular interplay between Graham, Lecter and the Dragon. Ralph Fiennes’ inability to keep up his end of the bargain in this allows the film to fall somwwhat flat in places. As a result Lecter (perhaps intentionally) fill’s the fear vacuum that remains. Hopkins is accompanied by a wonderful and particularly rangy cast, (good support comes from Harvey Keitel and Philip Seymour Hoffman in peripheral roles) who all perform admirably but seemingly within their limits. Emily Watson, on the back of her bolshy turn in Gosford Park, is particularly impressive as the fiercely independent blind woman drawn to the brief glimpses of warmth that emerge from a cold and vicious psychotic.

On the whole there is slickness inherent in every frame of Red Dragon, it is a very competent and engaging thriller, but little more. It offers no real stylistic complexity or originality, despite this the plot is reasonably solid and holds your attention, assisted by the performances, till the last. I had the distinct disadvantage of knowing both the plot of Manhunter and the novel itself rather well, which may cloud my judgement here. Every aspect of the film is carried off with a competent work ethic and director Brett Ratner (head honcho of the Rush Hour franchise) handles the material with technical skill without ever really impressing. Thankfully, Hopkin’s has managed to tone down the one liner’s and quirky mannerisms that he embellished to the limit in the truly dire Hannibal, and once again he attempts to inject a degree of dread into the twisted psychiatrist. However, based on the audiences’ assumptions mainly, he still gets the odd laugh, which is inevitable given the extent to which this material has been parodied over the years since Hopkins’ first stint behind the glass barrier.

Red Dragon lacks much of the visual complexity and innovation that is evident in Manhunter (a film, you might have guessed, that I really admire). Similarly, it cannot recreate the terrifyingly visceral impact that The Silence of the Lambs made on audiences at the time of its release. So it unfortunately lies sullenly in a place somewhere between the two; suggesting so much and alluding to past menace through the same iconography as the previous films, Red Dragon ultimately displaying no real bite and leaving no lasting scars.


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