Red Dragon (2002)

D: Brett Ratner
S: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton

...and hello again, Hannibal.

A terrific cast buoys a basic rendering of Thomas Harris' novel. This is the second time out for this story, filmed previously in 1986 as Manhunter. This version comes in the cinematic wake of Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal though, so its selling point is not Harris' twisted journey through the psychological congruences between pursuer and pursued, but the return of Anthony Hopkins to his Oscar-winning role as Hannibal Lecter. In Manhunter, Brian Cox played the good doctor as a spiteful character framed by a clinical environment which contained and seemed to oppress him with its whiteness. In keeping with the design conceits established by Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins appears in his familiar neo-medieval dungeon, and the actor more or less retreads his steps from the previous two movies (with maybe a small edge to it suggesting a less serene and controlled character).

Already the problem with the film should be obvious from the structure of this review. The story of this film involves retired FBI agent Edward Norton (Fight Club) tracking down sicko Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) by attempting to understand how he thinks. The subtle slippage of identity and the sense of a growing contradictory feeling of revulsion and sympathy in our own identification with both hero and villain is what makes it disturbing, and what sold both the book and the first filmic adaptation. This story element is given further weight by the addition of a most unusual supporting character, a love interest for the villain, in this film a blind photolab technician played by Emily Watson. Even as he is being pursued, the killer may be about to stop what he is doing because he seems to have found kindness and compassion strong enough to overcome his psychosis. There are many interesting elements here, but the problem is that even the first paragraph of this review was focused on Hannibal Lecter, and that is where the attention of the audience is forcibly drawn by scriptwriter Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs) and director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour).

Lecter has become a bogeyman figure of Freddy Kruger-like dimensions by now, especially when portrayed by Hopkins. His Oscar for Best Actor (for what was essentially a supporting role) triggered the wacky sequel (in which even Harris seemed to treat the character with self-parodic contempt), and has now reflected back upon this redraft of the original story. Inserting a couple of additional Lecter scenes, most notably a prelude and coda, Tally essentially shifts the focus away from its central characters and onto the crowd-pleasing antics of the real moneyspinner. Lecter is now the epitome of contemporary evil, an erudite, educated man whose contempt for humanity runs so deep that he eats his victims. Of course we see almost none of that, not this time. The audience is instead treated to teasing gags and patrician bon mots though which they get to share his 'superiority' for a brief while. Red Dragon gives the audience what they want, plenty of Lecter; more of him than there really should be. The misdirection hurts the storytelling, and it is testament to the skill of the cast that the film works as well as it does on a genre level.

Norton is very good in the role of the tortured FBI man driven by his own brilliant mind into places he would much rather not inhabit, even temporarily. His sunken looks and precise, no-nonsense delivery of by now too familiar jargonesque dialogue carry the character a long way, although he is hamstrung by the script. Amazingly for an actor of his calibre, Norton does not erase the memory of William Petersen in Manhunter, whose torment seemed more vivid perhaps because in that case the director was telling the story more or less as written. Hopkins, as noted, does a slight variant on his original characterisation, but in his case the direction seems to sell him short. Unsure of whether to be Jonathan Demme or Ridley Scott, Ratner hovers between them. He tries to emulate Demme's disturbing use of mid shot and POV in Silence of the Lambs, but also tries for the florid aestheticism of Scott's coldly luxuriant camera work in Hannibal.

The film is not so much without style as without a coherent style, and it fares worst when it pushes hardest (such as a tracking shot into Fiennes' cavernous Norman Bates style mansion accompanied by Danny Elfman's unsuitably bombastic score, or a series of rapid cutaways to gruesome images intended to shock but usually just breaking the tension generated by the actors). Philip Seymour Hoffman is particularly hard done by in the role of a sleazy journalist called upon to 'bear witness' to the killer's fantasy. Hoffman's performance is undone by camera work which barely allows the audience to see what he is doing.

Watson (Hilary and Jackie) is also good in support, making a believable stab at showing her character's tentative courtship of the man she thinks is just a little quiet and misunderstood. Again though, with the audience presumed to be restless without Lecter action, the film insists on cutting away to miscellaneous scenes featuring Hopkins which do nothing to advance the portrayal of this all-important relationship. The film is further weakened by the lack of chemistry between Watson and Fiennes. For his part, Fiennes seems a little too stiff to suggest change of any kind, and not just from loner to nutcase, but the more subversive suggestion of change from nutcase to relative normalcy (his psychosis given). When an actor immerses themselves in subtlety to a point where nothing registers at all, there is only the superficial to hang onto. On this level, he makes a fairly formidable killer, but without the necessary support from the script which the character warrants, he cannot withstand the Lecter factor. Harvey Kietel rounds out the major cast with a solid performance (Frankie Faison gets to play a part again (not Barney, funnily enough), but he's barely there). Anthony Heald gets to reprise his role as Lecter's 'old friend', Dr. Chilton.

Red Dragon is not without interesting elements. Tally can tell a meaningful story and Ratner can render it with serviceable pictures. But the bowing and scraping to audience expectation that has evidently informed this reworking of the novel has not done anyone involved very much of a service, even Hopkins. It is a pleasure to see such a strong cast working hard, but the imbalances and disconnections in the script add up, culminating in the abrupt climax which is anticlimactic precisely because the film has not shown enough interest in the characters involved in it. The coda is amusing in a 'nod and a wink' kind of way, but doesn't really make much sense from the point of view of chronology and merely drives home the final nail in the conviction that this film is a tease for a better film which has already been made and didn't need any more advertising. I suppose in Hollywood's terms, you can never have enough advertising though, so here you have it, a feature length pre-sell for a product already in the market. Hmmm. Scary. The scariest thing about it though is that because this is now the 'latest' Lecter adventure, the franchise has been reactivated. The peculiarities of Hannibal might have been enough to 'kill off' the character had they been allowed to stand. This more routine adventure might prove a prelude not just to features already made, but packages already in pitch.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.