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Dustin Putman

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Red Dragon (2002)
2½ Stars

Directed by Brett Ratner
Cast: Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Mary-Louise Parker, Tyler Patrick Jones, Anthony Heald, Ken Leung, Azura Skye, Frankie Faison, Frank Whaley
2002 – 125 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, language, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 5, 2002.

Much press—and almost as much criticism—has been made about director Brett Ratner taking on "Red Dragon," the highly-touted remake to 1986's "Manhunter" and prequel to the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, and it is obvious why. Until now, Ratner's filmmaking career has cornered only action comedies (1998's "Rush Hour" and 2001's "Rush Hour 2") and whimsical dramas (2000's "The Family Man"), making his involvement on such a dark, challenging project worth questioning. It is something of a relief, then, that Ratner one-ups the more respected Ridley Scott, making "Red Dragon" easily superior to 2001's misguided "Hannibal." Although nowhere near the lofty levels of 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," "Red Dragon" retains the mood and most of the artistic craft of that award-winning shocker.

For anyone who has read the novel by Thomas Harris or seen the previous "Manhunter" (with Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter), "Red Dragon" should inspire an indelible sense of déją vu. Ever sense catching serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and getting wounded in the process several years earlier, Will Graham (Edward Norton) has been living a peaceful life in Florida with wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and son Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones). Will is called out of retirement by former boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) to aid in tracking down a new serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy," who seems to be working on a lunar cycle and leaves a bite mark on his victims.

In a simultaneous storyline, "The Tooth Fairy" is revealed to be the introverted Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), a physically daunting but lonely worker at a color correction facility. When he meets co-worker Reba (Emily Watson), a pretty, blind woman who hates people taking pity on her, Dolarhyde is horrified that he may be growing actual feelings for the person most likely to be his next victim.

More emotionally satisfying and tautly paced, "Red Dragon" rights some of the pitfalls of "Manhunter," but also contains several of the same problems. The construction of the story is flawed, moving back and forth between Will's investigation, Lecter in prison, and Dolarhyde's doomed romance with Reba. When done well, several major plots occurring at once can enrich, and add layers to, a film's whole. However, there are long stretches of "Red Dragon" when certain major characters disappear to make room for the screen time of others. The result is mildly, but not disastrously, uneven. Will Graham is the weakest of the principals, if only because he is the lead character, yet lacks development or dynamism. In other words, he is most definitely not as interesting as Clarice Starling.

What director Brett Ratner and screenwriter Ted Tally get right is a weighty sense of foreboding that hangs over the ensemble, particularly in the unlikely love story that culminates between the insane Dolarhyde and the blind Reba, who for all her worldliness is unable to see the monster she is slowly falling in love with. The brooding cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (who uncoincidentally also did "Manhunter") and chilling music score by Danny Elfman (2002's "Spider-Man") assist in the superbly realized atmosphere of the piece.

"Red Dragon" has been blessed with one of the most star-studded casts of the year, although not everyone is given equal chance in doing much with their roles. Most successful are Ralph Fiennes (1999's "Sunshine"), creating an unforgettable villain in Francis Dolarhyde, and Emily Watson (2001's "Gosford Park"), poignantly real as Reba. Watson is the much-needed heart and soul of the film, projecting both hope and honest cynicism to a part that is significantly more realized than it was when Joan Allen played it in "Manhunter." As snotty-nosed tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds, Philip Seymour Hoffman (2000's "Almost Famous") turns in another swell supporting turn.

On the flip side, Edward Norton (2002's "Death to Smoochy") suffers from a blandness that his Will Graham never escapes. Norton isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination—he's quite good, actually—but his part is not magnetic enough to win us over. Meanwhile, Mary-Louise Parker (1999's "The Five Senses"), as Will's wife, Molly, and Harvey Keitel (2000's "Little Nicky"), as Jack Crawford, are sorely wasted.

No review of "Red Dragon" would be complete without mention of the star attraction, and Anthony Hopkins (2002's "Bad Company") does not disappoint as the calmly psychotic Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins, whose deliberate turn in "Hannibal" came off as too jokey a parody of the role he so scarily inhabited in "The Silence of the Lambs," is more on-target here. Lecter does not spin off a round of one-liners, and Hopkins smartly decides to reprise the intensity and cold charm that he originated the role with eleven years ago.

"Red Dragon" inevitably lacks the novelty of "The Silence of the Lambs" and, thus, is a weaker overall effort, but director Brett Ratner has worked a miracle in at least recapturing a similar tone. Save for a tacked-on, unconvincing climax, "Red Dragon" engages for the duration of its 125-minute running time. Best of all, it includes a masterful stroke in its very last scene that satisfyingly wraps the Hannibal Lecter trilogy up, creating a whole that is, ultimately, far greater than some of its parts.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman