Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 25th: Red Dragon (2002)

In 1980, FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton) is investigating a bizarre series of murders in Baltimore, Maryland, working closely with psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) on developing a psychological profile of the killer. While at Lecter's home for another consultation, Graham discovers evidence proving Lecter to be the killer. Lecter tries to disembowel Graham, but Graham gets the upper hand and apprehends Lecter. Lecter is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Graham, psychologically traumatized, retires from the FBI.
Three years later, Graham is living peacefully in Marathon, Florida, with his wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and son Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones) when Special Agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) pays him a visit. The FBI is investigating the murders of two families, the Jacobis in Birmingham, Alabama and the Leeds in Atlanta, Georgia, both committed by a serial killer nicknamed The Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes), a deranged man named Francis Dollarhyde, turned monstrous by his sadistic grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and driven to kill by his alternate personality, The Great Red Dragon.
Baffled by a lack of evidence, the FBI's single, solitary clue is that the Tooth Fairy's killings coincide with the full moon, giving them only three weeks to catch him before the next full moon. Despite some initial reluctance, Graham agrees to help Crawford, promising Molly that he'll only look at evidence and not get deeply involved. With the prospect of a third family's death weighing on his conscience, Graham inevitably becomes deeply involved, but comes to realize that if he is to catch the Tooth Fairy before he kills again, he must seek advice from Hannibal Lecter one last time.
The only horror film to win Best Picture, The Silence of The Lambs is an iconic classic, the perfect blend of crime procedural, horror slasher and psychological character study. Everything about it works; the acting, especially Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning performances, are outstanding, Jonatham Demme's direction is perfectly gothic and atmospheric and Ted Tally's script is tightly wound and executed to perfection. It's rare for a film to be flawless and The Silence of The Lambs is in that class of filmmaking.
Interestingly enough, The Silence of The Lambs is not the film that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world; that honor goes to Manhunter, a Dino De Laurentiis production from 1986, predating Demme's film by five years. In comparison to the world of The Silence of The Lambs, Manhunter exists in an entirely different universe. Michael Mann gives the film a bizarre, almost dreamlike style, favoring haunting, coldblooded visuals over Jonathan Demme's gothic atmosphere, while Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter is predated by the deranged Hannibal Lecktor, played by Brian Cox.
Why do I bring up Manhunter? Because both that film and this film are based off Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon, which was the very first Hannibal Lecter story; both films follow renowned FBI criminal profiler Will Graham coming out to retirement to catch the Tooth Fairy and seek advice from Hannibal Lecter. For the most part, Manhunter and Red Dragon are very similar films, featuring the same plot points, characters and setups. So why redo this story? The answer is Dino De Laurentiis; despite dreadful reviews, Ridley Scott's Hannibal was a huge box office hit and, with Manhunter having been mostly forgotten by 2002, De Laurentiis decided to take another swipe at the original Lecter story.
Given the impressive cast and crew assembled for this, there's a lot to be hopeful about and with good reason; Red Dragon is a worthy addition to Hannibal Lecter's film resume. Though he may seem lightweight compared to his predecessors, Ratner gives Red Dragon a brisk pacing that keeps the story going and the audience intrigued. His visuals are in all fairness workmanlike, lacking any real visual panache; that's not to say it's poorly directed but in comparison to Michael Mann and Jonathan Demme, Brett Ratner's take on Hannibal The Cannibal is visually less striking, even forgettable most of the time.
Though the visuals are shabby, Red Dragon does win points for storytelling; Ted Tally's script is really the backbone of this film. In contrast to Michael Mann's script for Manhunter, Tally manages to get the story moving quicker while still covering a lot of the same territory. Furthermore, Hannibal Lecter is wisely given more to do here and the Tooth Fairy is better integrated into the story. It's also a delight to see Hannibal before his capture (with a ponytail, no less) and to finally witness the Lecter/Graham confrontation only hinted at in Manhunter.
Unfortunately, Tally's script isn't flawless and although the plot holes are few and far between, they're big, glaring holes, all of which deal with the character of Will Graham. Though I can't speak for the way Graham is presented in Harris' novel, Michael Mann's film presents him as a troublesome figure; whereas we feared Clarice Starling's lack of experience would cause her to make a mistake that would get her killed, we fear Will Graham's extensive experience has made him unstable and dangerous; in Red Dragon, Graham lacks any edge to his personality and seems to have no psychological trauma whatsoever. So when Tally tells us that Graham spent time in a mental hospital and is a monster like Hannibal, it doesn't jive at all. In addition, this Will Graham rarely comes off as the resourceful criminal profiler of Mann's film; he has to rely on Hannibal far more for clues and when he actually busts Hannibal in the opening scenes, it looks like he got lucky rather than smart.
I've always liked Edward Norton, but his Will Graham leaves something to be desired. In Manhunter, William Petersen conveyed Graham's psychological torment and reluctance to return to the force, but also presented Graham as selfless and heroic. Norton is certainly likeable as Graham and conveys his humanity very well, but he's just not interesting to watch; he seems bored most of the time and lacks the intensity necessary for this character, not mention that he looks too young to be a seasoned criminal profiler. Furthermore, Norton has no edge to his personality here and never once do you question his mental state. It doesn't help that he's saying and doing much of the same things Petersen did in Manhunter and by comparison, Norton is a dull, lifeless presence for most of the film.
Fortunately, Norton's co-stars step up to the plate in a big way. Following a rather unimpressive performance in Hannibal, Anthony Hopkins redeems himself with a performance closer in spirit to the one that won him the Oscar. Harvey Keitel is commanding and enjoyable as Jack Crawford, though I personally prefer his predecessors Dennis Farina and Scott Glenn. Philip Seymour Hoffman is appropriately sleazy as tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds, despite awkwardly stumbling through his dialogue. Emily Watson lives up to Joan Allen's portrayal of Reba McClane, but gets more time to develop the character as well. Special mention goes to Anthony Heald, returning to play the sinister Frederick Chilton, and Frankie Faison, back for a third time as Barney Matthews and the fourth time overall (he played Lieutenant Fisk in Manhunter).
Then there's Ralph Fiennes, a rather unusual choice for the role of Francis Dollarhyde. Aside from his role as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, Fiennes was known at the time for doing talky character dramas like The English Patient, which Seinfeld made fun of to great effect. As Dollarhyde, Fiennes crafts a more sympathetic version than Tom Noonan; this Dollarhyde is tormented and struggles with his murderous impulses, especially in a well-crafted attic scene where Dollarhyde refuses to kill Reba. Though effective as a sympathetic villain, Fiennes is lacking any real menace or intensity, especially in comparison to Tom Noonan, whose Francis Dollarhyde was a fucking nightmare come to life.
Looking at this as an adaptation of a book, how close does Red Dragon the movie come to Red Dragon the book? All in all, it's a pretty close adaptation, certainly more so than Manhunter, though I would say Manhunter is the better film. It doesn't help that Ratner reminds me of that by throwing in visual callbacks to both the original film and The Silence of The Lambs; sure it's the same story, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers have to remind me by showing Lecter in the mask or having a flaming body in a wheelchair. Fortunately, Ratner and Tally throw in new twists, some from the novel and some original; the best of these being the final confrontation between Graham and Dollarhyde, in which Graham finally shows why he's so renowned by the FBI; it's easily the most tense scene in the whole movie and makes sitting through the whole movie worth it, though the final moment with Hannibal and Chilton is needlessly tacked on.
I'll admit I was skeptical coming into this one; Hannibal had killed all momentum this series had going for it, Manhunter had done this story perfectly well and while I like Ratner, I knew he wouldn't make a film on the same level as Michael Mann, let alone Jonathan Demme. Overall, I'm pleasantly surprised with Red Dragon, thanks primarily to a rock solid script by Ted Tally, brisk pacing and the wonderful supporting cast, with Hopkins giving it his all in his last performance as Hannibal The Cannibal. While it has its story flaws and suffers from a weak lead in Norton and a non-frightening villain, in this day and age where remakes are tossed out willy nilly with little to no attention paid to quality control, it's nice to see a remake that actually tries and, by and large, lives up to its predecessor. 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 27th: Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988)

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