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Red Dragon (2002)

July 27th, 2007 · 4 Comments

John Huston once said: “”There is a willful lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time. They can’t make them as good as they are in our memories, but they go on doing them and each time it’s a disaster. Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures … and make them good?” This Distracted Globe recycles itself and examines the best and worst remakes.

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By Joe Valdez

In Baltimore, 1980, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) throws a dinner party. FBI special agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) visits to consult with the psychiatrist on a serial murder investigation. Graham has the ability to assume the emotional point of view of criminals, and confides in Lecter that he believes their killer ate missing body parts from their victims. Lecter buries a stiletto into Graham, but the FBI agent wounds Lecter before he finishes him off.

Several years later, FBI agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) visits Graham at his home in Florida. Two families – one in Birmingham, one in Atlanta – have been killed a month apart in their homes. The killer, dubbed The Tooth Fairy, smashes mirrors and uses the pieces to kill his victims. Graham agrees to go to Atlanta to look at the murder scene, to the distress of his wife (Mary-Louise Parker).

Graham deduces that the Tooth Fairy took off his gloves to touch the eyelids of his female victims, and the FBI get a thumb print. This fails to identify the killer, so Crawford convinces Graham to consult the imprisoned Lecter for help. Lecter advises Graham to “see the family living.” As Graham picks up more clues, Lecter learns the address of his family’s home in Florida.

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Meanwhile, a solitary film lab technician named Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) strikes up a romance with a blind co-worker (Emily Watson). When a note found in Lecter’s cell reveals that he’s using the personal ads of a tabloid to communicate with the Tooth Fairy, Graham uses sleazy journalist Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to try to lure the killer out. Lecter contacts his protege, Dolarhyde, and gives him Graham’s address.

With the box office success of Hannibal, Universal Pictures and producer Dino De Laurentiis moved to bring Thomas Harris‘ 1981 novel Red Dragon to the big screen. It had already been made into a movie in 1986, by writer-director Michael Mann under the title Manhunter. William Petersen had starred as the tortured Will Graham in the cult classic, while Brian Cox appeared as “Hannibal Lecktor.”

Screenwriter Ted Tally, who won an Oscar adapting The Silence of the Lambs, turned in a highly regarded script. Universal’s original choice to play Graham was Nicolas Cage. To direct, they wanted Michael Bay. Bay turned the project down, but the studio’s second choice, Brett Ratner, said yes. Ed Norton agreed to star as Graham, while Sean Penn was in negotiations to play Dolarhyde. Ralph Fiennes ultimately took the part.

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While Manhunter remains one of the most evocative police procedurals ever made – a B-movie that becomes much more – Ratner wanted Red Dragon to be a classy psychological thriller in the Hitchcock mode. He almost pulls it off. The movie is bookended by sensational beginning and ending sequences. Everything in between ranges from okay to mediocre.

Lecter’s introduction and his attack on Graham, and Dolarhyde’s visit to Graham’s family at the end are both improvements over how Mann opened and closed his version. Tally’s script is top notch, with a clever credits sequence that takes us through Lecter’s trial. It’s a testament to how faithful Tally adhered to Thomas Harris’ acclaimed book that Ratner was able to assemble this terrific cast.

Lecter is more menacing here than any of the other films, and Ratner deserves some credit for casting Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison from Silence of the Lambs, bridging that film to this one. But Red Dragon doesn’t hold a candle to Manhunter in terms of energy, sophistication, or apprehension. Instead of plunging the viewer into the heart of darkness, Ratner is content to go through the motions of a popcorn thriller.

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“Nothing is horrifying about it – intentionaly or otherwise – and nothing is really great or all that memorable. A very middle of the road movie on all accounts,” writes Jonny Lieberman at Ruthless Reviews.

Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews calls Red Dragon, “a mostly commercial venture that really contributes nothing new or exciting to the series. If you do happen to see it and are entertained enough, I would highly recommend seeking out Manhunter … as it is infinitely more substantial and better executed.”

“I’ll stick to Manhunter for my appointment with the Tooth Fairy thank you very much,” says The Arrow, aka John Fallon, at Arrow In The Head.

Tags: Based on novel · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Murder mystery · Museums and galleries · Psycho killer · Psychoanalysis · Shootout · Woman in jeopardy

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Piper // Jul 28, 2007 at 10:50 am


    You might be a bit too kind in your review when you say Ratner almost pulls off a classy Hitchcock thriller. I was skeptical of the cast from the beginning because when you get a cast like this assembled, it’s usually trying to cover for something or trying to plus the script where a mediocre director can’t. The only plus I saw to this version was Hoffman as the sleazy Freddy. He played it as disinterested which I’m sure he was, but it came off brilliantly.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 31, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Pat: A great cast is usually a reflection of how good the material, or the director is. I’m not talking about a Ben Kingsley or a Michael Caine showing up for the money, but six or seven respected actors all appearing in the same film together. That’s when I know either the script is great, or the director is. In this case, it was widely reported that everyone who read Tally’s adaptation was knocked out.

  • 3 Piper // Aug 2, 2007 at 6:00 am

    I’ve never seen a good script save a bad director. On the other hand, I have a seen a bad director kill many good scripts. How could they all have come and not even bothered to notice Ratner was behind camera. It was a bad choice to have such a good script with such a mediocre director. But I don’t know why I’m bitching, I loved Manhunter and I thought Brian Cox as Hannibal was fantastic.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Aug 2, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    I agree, there were several moments in this movie where you can see how much more depth Michael Mann brought to the exact same scenes.Freddy’s death and the tiger scene come to mind.

    I’m at a loss to explain why Universal thought that Michael Bay, then Ratner would be good choices to direct such dark, psychologically complex material. You usually only see decisions like that coming out of Fox.

    This is where you’re just thankful Manhunter is available on DVD.

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