Red Dragon
directed by Brett Ratner
(MGM, 2002)

directed by Michael Mann
(Anchor Bay, 1986)

There are several legitimate reasons for doing remakes of earlier films. One is to update a classic story for a new generation. Another is because the first film wasted a good idea that could have been done better. And then there is the motivation operative in this remake of Michael Mann's Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's novel, Red Dragon, which is that it's one more way to milk some more money out of a profitable franchise. Though producer Dino de Laurentiis said he wanted to make the movie because people were telling him that he simply had to show the world who caught Hannibal Lecter for the first time, one suspects that he saw a chance to make one more Hannibal movie in which Anthony Hopkins could play the role of the savage gourmand. Thus, the new film of Red Dragon.

First, some background on the original movie. Director Michael Mann's Manhunter appeared in 1986, and was a sleek, stylish and very frightening thriller. It followed the Harris book closely, rightfully making Hannibal Lecter (played by Brian Cox) a supporting character with only several scenes. The film, as did the book, centered on Will Graham and on Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer he's chasing. Mann has made some less-than-great films, but Manhunter is not one of them. It's long been considered a top-notch suspense film, and a fairly accurate realization of the book (with a few exceptions, to be discussed later).

So it's no wonder that when De Laurentiis went to Mann, who had contractual first refusal on the directing job, Mann declined, not wanting to remake his own film, which he obviously thought didn't need remaking. Then the producers went to Brett Ratner, whose previous experience was directing such unmemorable diversions as The Family Man and Rush Hour 2. They got Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Talley to do the script, and put together an impressive cast, with Edward Norton as Graham, Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde and, of course, the big prize -- Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. Even with all this splashy talent, the movie falls flat in comparison to its predecessor. It's not a bad movie, it's just not very good, and throughout you have the sense that you've seen it all before, even if you're not familiar with the original film, something that the filmmakers seem to be counting on.

The blame can be shared all around, but it's the director who has to take most of it. From the start, Ratner's defensiveness about his film being compared to Manhunter augured ill. The director of a superior film doesn't have to trash talk the original, he has only to put out something better, and Ratner didn't deliver. Even though he uses the same cameraman, Dante Spinotti, who filmed Manhunter, there is no real visual style to Red Dragon except for the feeling that everything seems too dark. Spinotti skillfully bathed Manhunter with light, even in the night scenes, making the theme of illumination of the darkness all the stronger. In fact, when you look back at all the Lecter films, they were rich in visual style, from the baroque, old-world look of Ridley Scott's Hannibal to the effective contrast of slimy brick mixed with sterile offices in Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs. Red Dragon visually scores only in its depiction of Dolarhyde's dwelling, an old nursing home with the creepy ambience of the post-war Tara.

As for the performances, the new film fails in comparison on nearly all counts, due primarily to miscasting. Edward Norton is a fine actor who has proven himself capable of playing a wide range of characters, but he's simply too boyish for Will Graham. He even lacks (and I never thought I'd be saying this about a Norton performance) the intensity that William Petersen brought to the earlier film. For example, the scenes in which Graham talks into his tape recorder while examining the crime scenes is harrowing in Manhunter, as Petersen draws too near the madness that caused his earlier breakdown. With Norton, the revelations seem merely procedural. Petersen's Graham was strong yet fragile, a man who had been severely scarred by his work, and that sense is not realized in Norton's Graham. Ralph Fiennes is also ill-cast. Even with his added harelip and a few extra muscles, he is still too physically beautiful and svelte to make a convincing Dolarhyde (though his tattoos are a thing of wonder). There is never the sense of changing into the Red Dragon, as there was of Tom Noonan's brilliantly realized and subtle performance. Fiennes simply has to work too hard, while Noonan's physical presence was so powerful and terrifying that he could effectively underplay nearly everything, to stunning effect. Again, compare the scene in which he softly and chillingly shows the pictures of his victims to reporter Freddy Lounds to Fiennes' louder and more over-the-top performance.

And speaking of over-the-top, with this film Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter has finally jumped the shark. For those who have preferred Brian Cox's original Lecter in Manhunter, we now have a true basis for comparison, scenes in which both actors deliver pretty much the same dialogue. Although I've enjoyed Hopkins' performances in the role, I have to confess that Cox's delivery of the classic line, "Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black," is far more effective in its flat suggestiveness than Hopkins' more hammy rendition. You keep expecting him to make that slurping noise that made us all jump and shiver in Silence. Due to familiarity, Hopkins' character has pretty much lost its ability to frighten by this time. Even though he's not as cuddly as in the previous films, he never seems a true threat.

The supporting roles fare little better in Red Dragon. Harvey Keitel is solid as Jack Crawford, Mary-Louise Parker is annoying, though not overly so, as Graham's wife, and Philip Seymour Hoffman does nothing surprising with the sleazy reporter Freddy Lounds. The one stand-out is Emily Watson as Reba McClane, who at least equals Joan Allen's performance as the blind woman with whom Dolarhyde forms a romantic attachment.

As for the much talked about "original ending," it's not totally faithful to the book, but more so than Manhunter. (SPOILER ALERT -- IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING OF EITHER FILM OR THE BOOK, SKIP TO THE LAST PARAGRAPH. I MEAN IT! ALL WILL BE SPOILED, SPOILED, SPOILED! COME BACK AND READ IT LATER!) In the book, Dolarhyde stages his own death, placing a convenient corpse in the wreckage of his burning and blown-up house, leaving both readers and the authorities to assume he's dead. However, he then appears at Graham's home and tries to kill him, but only succeeds in severely wounding him before he's finally killed by Graham's wife Molly. In Manhunter, however, Graham gets to Dolarhyde's house as Dolarhyde is reluctantly preparing to kill Reba for imagined infidelity, there's a fight, and Dolarhyde is killed for good. No fire, no explosion, no fake death. You can understand Mann's reluctance, since the villain-who-we-think-is-dead-but-really-isn't concept had become a thriller cliche by 1986. It's a tough, tight scene, superbly underscored by "In-A-Gadda-Da Vida," of all things! Red Dragon (the film) restores this original ending, but undercuts the quick brutality of it by stretching it out with a cheesy psycho-babble interlude in which Graham tries to distract Dolarhyde from threatening his son by talking to him in the voice of his dead grandmother. It's corny and almost laughable, and reminded me of the hilariously goofy ending of another remake that shouldn't have been remade, The Haunting. The original book ending, without such histrionic sweetening, might have worked far better.

Needless to say, I'm a big fan of Manhunter, but even a bigger one of the book on which it is based. In 1988, I was one of a hundred horror writers asked to choose the top hundred best books in the genre and contribute a brief essay on it to the resultant volume (Horror: 100 Best Books, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman). My choice was 1981's Red Dragon, and I consider the first film far more faithful than the remake to the spirit of the book in every way. All in all, if you haven't seen Manhunter, you might enjoy the film of Red Dragon if you don't go with too high expectations. But my real advice is to rent the video or, better yet, buy the DVD of Manhunter, turn the lights out and prepare for some chills. Then, when you're finished, read Thomas Harris's original novel, which, frankly, beats both films with one hand tied behind its back.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 26 October 2002

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