Red Dragon is no Manhunter.

Reviews of the latest films.
Oct. 4 2002 12:07 PM

Red Drag

Red Dragon is no Manhunter.

Anthony Hopkins in Red Dragon
If only it could keep him from chewing scenery

The best thing about Red Dragon (Universal), the second adaptation of Thomas Harris' 1981 novel, is that it reminds you how scary and seminal the first adaptation—Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986)—was. This new movie, directed by Brett Ratner, recycles the same narrative, many of the same lines, and even some of the same camera set-ups, but it stubbornly refuses to haunt. It more or less works: Harris' book is a landmark in its (unsavory) genre, and Ted Tally's screenplay is maybe 95 percent faithful. Tally actually improves on Harris' climax with a nifty psychological coup; and there's a fun new prologue in which Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) presides over a grande bouffe (don't ask what's on the plate) before FBI profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton) arrives for a nearly fatal late-night consultation. But in between you could be watching a plodding, Hollywood-studio remake of some idiosyncratic foreign classic: The beats are the same, but the eerie vibe has been lost in translation.

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Manhunter—filmed under the title Red Dragon but changed because the studio thought it sounded vaguely Japanese—featured CSI's William Petersen as Graham and Tom Noonan as the deformed serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, who enters the houses of sleeping suburban families and butchers them, then puts shards of mirrors in their eyes so he can see his "reflected glory." It also featured a subdued Brian Cox in the peripheral (but thematically central) role of Lecter (for some reason spelled "Lector"), the forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic madman who had nearly killed Graham some years before. The use of this sociopath as a consultant—a sort of psycho-killer emeritus—was at the time rather shocking, although it's now the stuff of Austin Powers parodies.

Few movies open as disturbingly as Manhunter. The camera—to the accompaniment of a droning synthesizer—follows the beam of a flashlight through a dark house, up a staircase, to a bedroom where a couple lies asleep. The beam falls on the woman, who tosses briefly, then sits up and stares into the harsh light—whereupon the image, mercifully, goes black. This is, of course, the trek of Dolarhyde, who will slaughter the family in that house; but it could also be the vision of Petersen's Graham as he relives the night of carnage while staring at crime-scene glossies and bloodstained chalk-outlines. They're on the same eerie wavelength.

Manhunter is a movie with obvious howlers: a Miami-Vice-like overreliance on synthesized sludge like Red 7's "Heartbeat" (although Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" works like a dream); a tendency to dress all the characters in $1,000 suits; the use of a modernist art museum as the exterior of a psychiatric prison. But its scenes of Graham wandering the crime scene and murmuring into his tape recorder are mesmerizing. Manhunter sired CSI and John Doe and Profiler and Millennium and all the other TV shows and movies that borrowed both Harris' theme and Mann's hypnotic tone. After this, thrillers would not only become positively fetishistic about forensics, they'd also tend to fixate on a single protagonist who would wander fresh murder sites and re-live the slaughter from the killer's point-of-view—who would be able, at a terrible cost, to plunge deep into a psycho's roiling psyche. Manhunter ushered in the age of empathy for the devil.

Manhunter wasn't a hit, but it was shown a lot on TV after Silence of the Lambs (1991) became a phenomenon. (It was even affixed with a nonsensical subtitle—"The Pursuit of Hannibal Lecter." He was already behind bars!) After last year's Hannibal made gazillions, someone at Dino De Laurentiis' company (which owns the rights to the Lecter character) decided that this particular udder should be given another milking. Red Dragon is being sold as the first chapter of the "Hannibal Lecter trilogy," but it's really the last chapter in the "Anthony Hopkins hambone trilogy." Hopkins' Lecter is like Bela Lugosi: a seething extrovert, a short step from the jokey host of some Tales From the Crypt-style horror series. (You can picture him looking up from his plate and saying, "The man in the story you're about to see was a very naughty boy, which is why I'm eating his pancreas.")

Hopkins in Red Dragon
A pale reflection of a better movie

Graham is now Edward Norton, who can be a good, nervy actor, but whose gangly, boy-scout demeanor and reedy tenor don't begin to suggest the profiler's unsavory depths. When Hopkins purrs, "You caught me because we're very much alike," it seems as if Lecter is deranged: He has zero in common with this Gomer Pyle. The same line in Manhunter was palpably true: Cox and Petersen had the same morbid sadness, and so did Tom Noonan as the killer. (The name Dolarhyde suggests a Mr. Hyde borne of woe; the towering Noonan was like Petersen and Cox stretched out.) But the three actors in Red Dragon inhabit different histrionic universes. That's not a small point in a story in which each character is obsessed with getting into the heads of the others.

Ralph Fiennes, with his chill blue eyes and gun-metal baritone, might have made a fascinating Graham, but he has been cast as Dolarhyde. Partly because of how he's photographed and directed, his psychosis has no mythic stature. When he travels to the Brooklyn Museum to eat the Blake painting that inspired his Red Dragon persona (a sequence that didn't make it into Manhunter), he might as well be munching a burrito. As the blind woman who decides to seduce him, Emily Watson somewhat overdoes the wide-eyed thing, but her sneaky eroticism gives the picture its lone touch of mystery.

Ratner apes some of Jonathan Demme's visual strategies from Silence of the Lambs; but Demme was coming from such wonderful movies as Melvin and Howard (1980) and Something Wild (1986): His close-ups of Lecter (inevitably in the middle of the screen) made for an unnerving departure from the loose frames of his usually bustling, humanist universe. Ratner's relentless close-ups are those of a schlockmeister getting in your face. Our first view of the blood-drenched walls and carpet comes with an orchestral BONG!, and the grisly fate of the tabloid journalist, Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman slumming schlumpily for his big paycheck), is treated as a joke. When Graham finally deduces how the killer is choosing his victims—one of the great moments in the book and in Manhunter, and one of the great moments in detective literature, period—it has almost no emotional weight. Ratner is such an inexpressive filmmaker that he needs those BONG!s or you don't know how to react. That he has reportedly disparaged Manhunter puts him in the pantheon of the unworthies. Lecter would fix him with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.