June 2024

Red Dragon (2002)

DIRECTOR: Brett Ratner


Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald, Bill Duke


Following in the footsteps of 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and 2001’s Hannibal, 2002’s Red Dragon was purported to complete the Hannibal Lecter ‘trilogy’ (but then came the ill-conceived flop Hannibal Rising, detailing Hannibal’s childhood and thus removing the last shred of the character’s enigma- and whose bright idea was it to try to make a Hannibal Lecter movie without Anthony Hopkins?). Actually, Red Dragon is a remake of 1986’s Manhunter, which was itself an adaptation of author Thomas Harris’ book Red Dragon, the first to feature the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, meaning although it was the last made, Red Dragon is chronologically the first in the series.

We start out with a tense prologue detailing how distinguished Baltimore psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) came to be imprisoned in the first place, with it suddenly dawning on the perceptive Special Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) that the good doctor may have more to do with the grisly murders he is helping him investigate than he lets on. After a brief struggle in which both are nearly killed, a series of newspaper clippings flashing by over the opening credits relate that Graham survived but had a breakdown and retired from the FBI, and that Hannibal was sentenced to nine life sentences. Several years later, Graham is living in Florida with his wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and his young son Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones), contentedly fixing boat motors, until his old boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel, playing Scott Glenn’s role from The Silence of the Lambs) shows up to request Graham’s help in solving the brutal murder of two families. Initially reluctant, Graham finds himself unable to stand by when he could potentially be saving lives, and tries to figure out this new killer, dubbed the Tooth Fairy, before he strikes again. Though we don’t see him right away, the murderer is shy, withdrawn Francis Dolarhyde (a buffed-up Ralph Fiennes, sporting a harelip and a massive dragon tattoo across his back). Dolarhyde is a very disturbed individual. He is beginning to grow attached to a blind coworker, Reba (Emily Watson), but how long can their budding relationship keep his dark side at bay? Predictaby, Will is forced to again seek the imprisoned Hannibal’s assistance, but Hannibal’s help never comes free or straightforwardly. Will finds Hannibal can still be dangerous even locked away, and despite his assurances to Molly that he will be in the back of the pack, his involvement in the hunt threatens to turn he- and his family- into the hunted.

Red Dragon is a more faithful adaptation of the source material than the original Manhunter film, Anthony Hopkins wasn’t the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter featured Brian Cox, who was adequate but not especially memorable) but he’s the one everyone associates with the role, and Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes are more acclaimed thespians than the likes of William Petersen and Tom Noonan. Unfortunately, Red Dragon is only serviceable, not exceptional in the way that The Silence of the Lambs was. One positive for Red Dragon is it tries to emulate Lambs and practices restraint over the cheerfully gory Hannibal. One negative is that while Lambs oozed dark, creepy atmosphere from every frame, and Hannibal, while feeling completely different, dripped with its own gothic sense of style, Red Dragon has little of either. Case in point is the contrast between Clarice’s descent into Hannibal’s prison world and Graham making the same journey. In Lambs, this sequence was one of the most ominous of the movie, as if Clarice was descending into the bowels of hell. Here Graham just walks down the hall and pulls up a chair. It’s pedestrian and generic.

Red Dragon boasts an impressive line-up, with Anthony Hopkins reprising his iconic role, and Oscar nominees Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes leading the way, but none of the above give standout performances. Norton is fine, but Will Graham doesn’t have nearly the depth and complexity of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. The book’s Graham was a darker, more troubled individual; here he’s a standard ‘brilliant movie investigator’. His target, Francis Dolarhyde, is given much more screentime and character development than Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill, and we are clearly intended to view him as something of a tragic figure, a man who struggles to stop but is unable to resist his overwhelming inner demons. Ralph Fiennes has a dependably menacing presence, and his performance is occasionally chilling, but overall it’s not among his stronger work, and he tends to seem overwrought in Dolarhyde’s most tormented moments. As for Hopkins, his presence is welcome in most any film, and the chance to see him again return to Hannibal Lecter brings a measure of enjoyment, but it’s hard to deny that Hopkins as Hannibal is starting to get a little old. With each consecutive outing, the menace factor goes down and Hopkins slips further into running on autopilot through well-traversed territory.

The supporting cast features a nice turn from Emily Watson, as the woman who cannot see- mentally or physically- the dark side of the man she has befriended. In fact, one could argue she is the most truly ‘real’ and convincing character in the movie. Mary-Louise Parker is Will’s wife, who knows all too well what he is gettng himself back into, Harvey Keitel is adequate if forgettable as Jack Crawford, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is the guy you love to hate, a bottom-feeding tabloid sleazeball who bites off more than he can chew. The slimeball contingent is rounded out by Anthony Heald, reprising his role as Hannibal’s jailor Dr. Chilton.

Red Dragon is by no means a poorly-made or inept film, it’s just one that’s hard to be tremendously enthusiastic about, and the comparison with The Silence of the Lambs makes virtually every equivalent aspect of Red Dragon look ho-hum. Hopkins isn’t as scary, the film isn’t atmospheric or stylish, and the protagonist isn’t nearly as interesting. The attempts at replicating the Clarice-Hannibal mind games of Lambs fall flat and feel like half-hearted echoes. Hannibal tells Will that they are very much alike, but we never feel any connection between them like we did with Hannibal and Clarice. It’s a competent, professionally-crafted, workmanlike effort that gets us from point A to point B in a sure-handed, moderately engaging fashion but doesn’t make an indelible impression on us.