Back in 1991, Anthony Hopkins chilled the hearts of movie-goers with his menacingly effective turn as the cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in the modern masterpiece Silence of the Lambs. A decade later the powers that be decided to shed more light into the escapades of the now emancipated Lecter, in the atrocious Hannibal, a feeble follow up to its inspiration. But since that movie made tons of money, it was decided to present the world another look at the exploits of Dr. Lecter in the form of a prequel that pre-dates Lambs.
In fact Red Dragon, based on the book of the same name, has been filmed as a movie once before in the form of Manhunter, by now-prominent director Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, Heat, & Ali). But since the previous version didn't feature Anthony Hopkins in the role of Dr. Lecter, and instead had the unknown Brian Cox, it seemed like a good idea to bring the entire series up to date and in a way in sync with respect to that central character.
I am glad to say that the final product is a rousing piece of entertainment, equal parts crowd pleaser and a satisfyingly paced thriller. Though not nearly in the same league as Lambs, it is a vast improvement over the fiasco that was Hannibal, mainly because it uses a back to basics approach, that is, keeping Hannibal behind bars, and hence in the background, as a means and not the end. A big part of that has to do with employing scribe Ted Tally, who wrote the screenplay for the original. Even familiar faces such as Barney the warden and Dr. Chilton's self serving prison doctor make a return.
The movie opens in 1980, at an orchestra performance by the Baltimore Symphony that is being attended by the well mannered Dr. Lecter. After treating the symphony board to a good-intentioned but undisclosed dinner menu, Lecter is visited by FBI special agent Will Graham (an out of place Edward Norton), whom he is assisting on an investigation as a forensic psychiatrist. Before long, Will has concluded that Lecter isn't revealing all that there is to know, and after a rapid exchange of blows, Lecter is under captivity. Newspaper cutouts make it clear that Lecter is found guilty of his crimes and will be sentenced to life imprisonment; when we return many years later, Will, now retired, is working on boats and living a quiet decent life in Florida.
Soon he is asked to return to the life that he once led by his former superior Crawford (a very redundant Harvey Kietel) to work on a case that requires Will's expertise in thinking like the perpetrators he is pursuing. The crime in question involves the gruesome murder of two families by a killer who is very precise in his execution. His victims are primarily young, attractive women and their families. Coupled with his admiration for the incarcerated Dr. Lecter, the wheels are set in motion for a crafty, edgy and sometimes very engaging ride.
From the outset, I've made it clear that I found the ignoble Hannibal just as reprehensible as I found Silence of the Lambs to be outstanding. These two were polar extremes in both their execution and their after-effects. Having said that, I had my reservations before sitting down to view Red Dragon, not only because I had little faith in director Brett Ratner, he of the more family-oriented Rush Hour and its worthy sequel, but also because I had read the book several years ago and was well aware of the chain of events that would transpire on screen. In spite of all that, Red Dragon, came across as surprisingly effective, though not in the domains that most shall want it to be: the one-on-one confrontations between Lecter and his captor Will Graham.
The performances by all involved are good, especially Emily Watson's superb portrayal of the blind love interest to Ralph Fiennes menacing, tormented, denatured serial killer dubbed the "tooth fairy" owing to his penchant for biting his victims. Edward Norton lacks the riveting naivety that Jodie Foster radiated, or even the scarred emotional toil his character should display. His is the weakest character in the movie, and that is no fault of his. He is too young to portray and effectively capture the labor and turmoil of the task given to him, in light of his past fling with Lecter. Somewhere in between, tossed in for a good time, is Philip Seymour Hoffman as a trashy, sneaky journalist, covering the entire case with great gusto. Anthony Hopkins has by now mastered the art of spurting his lines in that cool, calculated Lecter demeanor of his that we all love and have taken for granted. It no longer has the effect it did all those years ago, but its still a whole lot of fun knowing that even now, as he speaks in all his vanity, there is something lurking in that head of his, a deeper meaning, a hidden truth.
Most of Red Dragon plays like a reminder of all the good parts from Lambs. It's not a rehash, but more of a tribute. It knows it can never rise to those ambitious levels that Jonathan Demme's movie did, it accepts this and never strives to be anything more that what its makers intended it to be, a good thriller. That it does achieve its ambition is a remarkable accomplishment of its director.
Much has already been said of the choice of Brett Ratner as a director to one of the most critically praised movies of the past decade. Indeed when Silence of the Lambs was first released, it became only the third movie in history to grab all four major Academy awards, those for director, picture, actor and actress. To this day, that record remains as is. What most forget is that when Jonathan Demme set out to film Lambs, he too was coming off a background in filming both comedies as well as music videos, a past shared by Ratner as well.
It makes perfect sense when one tries to visualize the attribute that plays most importantly when filming a comedy, that of timing. Something that works tremendously in favor of a director when he switches over to making a thriller, every character twitch makes us uneasy, every synchronizing of the swirling cameras with movement and observation deceives us. These are the elements that work most in favor of Red Dragon as is evident from its frantically filmed last moments. It's a shame that most will inevitably end up comparing this film with the brilliance of its predecessor. While it lacks any of the psychological undertones of Lambs, it does deliver what others have always tried to achieve. After the countless imitators that were spawned following the success of Lambs, this remains the most fruitful. - Faizan Rashid