Francis Dolarhyde, a harelipped psychopath who murders entire families in concert with the lunar cycle in Red Dragon, frequently writes letters to imprisoned anthropophagite Hannibal Lecter, whom you may remember from such films as The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Dolarhyde is known as the Tooth Fairy in the tabloid media for the bite marks he leaves on his victims, but his coded letters to the imprisoned Lecter are signed “Avid Fan.”
He’s not the only one. Brett Ratner, the tediously competent director of the Rush Hour movies, shares the public’s worship of Lecter—more specifically, Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the menacing maniac, which after three films, is both a virtuosic caricature and a pop-culture touchstone. Given the reins to the second adaptation of Thomas Harris’ first novel featuring Lecter—following Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter—Ratner is determined not to tamper with the stench of dread that still lingers on Hopkins’ blue jumpsuit.
Ratner studiously builds his entire film around the appearances of Lecter, particularly an extended prequel in which he’s captured by FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton). Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison both return from Silence in key supporting roles, and Ratner even re-creates the dank brick-lined prison basement in which we met Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s original—all the way down to the low tracking shot in which Lecter was first introduced.
Ratner also has surrounded Hopkins with an uncommonly well-pedigreed cast for a pulpy thriller, including Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde, who has a huge tattoo of a dragon on his heavily muscled back; Emily Watson as a blind woman who strikes a chord in the killer’s humanity; Harvey Keitel as another FBI agent; and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a reporter who gets what’s eventually coming to all reporters.
So what’s the end result of all of this painstaking groundwork? Not much more than a decent police procedural—well photographed by Dante Spinotti and scored by Danny Elfman—that lacks the shocking invention necessary to make it memorable.
The scariest innovation by Ratner and screenwriter Ted Tally (who also wrote Silence’s Oscar-winning script) is the compassion Dolarhyde is awarded even as he’s butchering people and putting mirrors where their eyes used to be. He was the victim of unspeakable child abuse, and his relationship with Watson’s character is an elegant dance through a minefield—until it blows up in some of the picture’s more unconvincingly operatic scenes, including Harris’ fantastical original ending.
Red Dragon the novel isn’t a story about Lecter, but he’s the main character in this film version. That wasn’t the case 16 years ago, when Mann made his own version of a fairly unremarkable story. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a know-it-all film buff who doesn’t think Hopkins and Ratner are treading on sacred ground here. In Manhunter, the Lecter role was originated by Brian Cox, who had entirely different ideas about menace. Where Hopkins chews each line like a fava bean, Cox muttered and growled his way to a chillingly Method performance—but Cox also had an advantage because audiences didn’t know Lecter the way they do now. His menace was in the possibilities, which is much scarier than forcing Ray Liotta to eat part of his own brain, as Hopkins did in Hannibal.
Mann’s film was an outstanding, ahead-of-its-time piece of work, though it’s still hard to get past that blessedly cheesy synthesized score. Red Dragon also is a piece of its time—a doggedly commercial thriller determined to get a big opening and preserve Lecter’s move from brilliantly odd creation to world-famous antihero. Audiences will eat it up—even if Lecter, the patron saint of smart murderers, might crave an entirely different taste.