THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Red Dragon is based on the first of Thomas Harris' novels featuring the character Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. The book was originally turned into a film in the late 1980's by director Michael Mann (The Insider, Ali). It was retitled Manhunter, and the part of Lecter was played by actor Brian Cox. The movie came and went quickly (although critical reviews were quite good). Then, in 1991, Jonathan Demme released his adaptation of the second Lecter novel, The Silence of the Lambs, which we all know swept the Oscars that year, including one for star Anthony Hopkins. Eight years later, Harris brought his character back in the book "Hannibal," which many - myself included - thought was complete junk. Ridley Scott turned it into a movie last year, but failed to fix any of the book's problems. Which brings us back to Red Dragon, which has been newly remade with Hopkins in the role that earned him a spot in the history books. It's my great pleasure to report that this film puts the series back on track, reigning in the operatic gore of Hannibal and returning to the intense psychology of Lambs.

Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) faces down serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Red Dragon
Edward Norton plays FBI agent Will Graham (a role played by "CSI" star William Peterson in Manhunter). In the film's prologue, we see Graham capturing Hannibal Lecter and putting him in prison. Then we jump ahead a few years. Graham has retired from the FBI and lives with his wife and son in Florida. He is visited by his former boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) who asks for help on a case. A serial killer nicknamed "the Tooth Fairy" has already killed two families. He has a very distinct modus operandi, which includes smashing every mirror in the homes he breaks into. Graham is reluctant to help, but agrees to take a look at the crime scene. It doesn't take long for him to get sucked into the case. When he finds himself unable to make a few key connections in his profile, Graham turns to Hannibal Lecter for help. At first, Lecter merely taunts his former adversary; Graham is smart, though, and he appeals to Lecter's sense of pride. The killer also makes contact with Lecter, which only serves to make the game even more tense.

In a subplot, we meet the Tooth Fairy, a.k.a. Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), a lonely child abuse victim who suffers delusions that he is "transforming" into something else (I won't spoil it by telling you what). Dolarhyde is methodical and vicious with his victims, including a tabloid reporter (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who writes disparaging things about him in print. One day, the Tooth Fairy meets a blind woman named Reba (Emily Watson) and finds himself attracted to her. She can't see how menacing he is, but responds to his positive attention. The movie is clever in the way it lets us know that Dolarhyde's feelings for Reba are sincere; he is a killer, but he is not necessarily a monster. His affection for her angers the voice in his head that tells him to do bad things. It's a fascinating idea that this woman's interest in him is nearly enough to drown out the muderous impulses.

Red Dragon does a lot of things right. The screenplay was written by Ted Tally, who also penned The Silence of the Lambs. He clearly understands the storytelling style of Thomas Harris and is good at translating that into a cinematic format. Another key decision was hiring Brett Ratner to direct. Ratner was not an obvious choice for the job. His previous movies were action comedies like the Rush Hour pictures or heartwarmers like The Family Man. However, I just read an interview with Ratner in which he admitted to cribbing shots from movies he liked. In this case, he borrows pretty liberally from Jonathan Demme. There's no doubt that he studied Lambs and tried to recreate its atmosphere. (Ratner has spoken of this openly in the press as well.) Some might call him a copycat, but I would argue something else: he knew that audiences disappointed by Hannibal would want a return to the formula that worked. Pretty smart, if you asked me.

There's one more thing the movie does right: it keeps Hannibal Lecter in his cell. Now, I love this character as much as the next person, but he's scarier when he's confined. This is the mistake that Hannibal made. The guy is not nearly as menacing when he's out walking around as he is when he's held back by every form of restraint possible. That's what gives him his sense of danger - the idea that he could break out at any minute and start chewing on innocent victims. As in Lambs, Lecter is more of a supporting character here, coming in at key moments to make a frightening impression. Hopkins also abandons the almost campy performance he gave last time to take the character back to his incidiously evil roots.

The rest of the all-star cast is also excellent, especially the always fine Edward Norton. Special recognition goes to Ralph Fiennes as the Tooth Fairy. I initially wasn't sure it was a good idea to cast such a recognizable actor as the main villain; movie serial killers are scarier when they are anonymous to the audience. Fiennes truly inhabits the role, effectively making us forget that we've seen the actor in many other films. Besides, he gets two great sicko scenes, one in which Reba unknowingly feeds into the sexual aspect of his crimes, the other when he visits an art museum for rather demented purposes.

Red Dragon is an intense movie that focuses much less on the gore than its predecessors did. Ratner shows the skillfulness to crank up the tension without having to show a lot of blood and guts. As good as it is, though, it never reaches the same level of nerve-wracking dread that Lambs so brilliantly achieved. After that movie, I was so freaked out that I went home every night for a week and looked in all the closets before going to bed. After Red Dragon, I went home feeling like I had seen a really compelling movie. Then again, if the worst thing you can say about a movie is that it isn't quite as good as The Silence of the Lambs, you have still paid that movie a tremendous compliment.

( 1/2 out of four)

Red Dragon is rated R for violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.

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