Director: Brett Ratner
Cast: Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Louise Parker, Anthony Heald
Plot: Retired FBI agent, Will Graham (Norton) is called back into the field to track down a dangerous serial killer, a case which draws him into the web of a very old enemy, Dr. Lecter…
While in the movie world, the Red Dragons comes across as an excuse to parade one of the greatest figures of the 90s, the terrifying Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, in a prequel, in actual fact, in the novels, the Red Dragon was the first story to feature the famous serial killer. So in a sense, this is returning to the roots of the story, and even if it comes across as strangely detached from the other two more famous movies (for a start, Clarice Starling’s plucky rookie is replaced with Will Graham’s tired veteran), it holds some surprising weight.
It helps I love the novel to pieces, perhaps slightly more than I loved Silence of the Lambs (and definitely more than Hannibal, by a country mile). Brett Ratner, while the director who ruined X-Men and is better known for less intelligent films like Rush Hour, to his credit makes for a strong front-man for this movie. Knowing that there is a heap of material to get through Ratner rarely tries to push the boundaries of the novel and instead plays it fairly straight. The cynics in the audience will accuse him of replicating the book, rather than improving it with a cinematic updating. It doesn’t help that this book was technically already tackled in the 80s Manhunter. However, what Ratner manages to do is create a movie that leaps right off the page at you, depicting every scene exactly how you imagined it when reading it all those years ago. The cast are the movie’s biggest strength, managing to keep their heads above the thick of exposition and delivering some strong character performances. Edward Norton is the perfect Will Graham, both charming and confident, yet trying to play it reserved. After a chilling opening (notable for being the one additional scene Ratner brought to the table), where Graham faces off against the infamous Lecter, Graham tries to settle down with his perfect wife and kids, in his perfect home. He does not want for money and there is little that could tempt him back to field duty. Enter the Tooth Fairy. Harvey Keitel’s grizzly Jack Crawford shows up and shows Graham some bloody crime scenes photos. Graham is prodded back into the line of duty, casually at first, but when the serial killer at large turns his attentions to both idolising Lecter and taking on Graham, Will is forced to truly take on this dangerous case. In a story with two towering psychopaths, Graham’s hero is in danger of being the most dull to spend time with out of the three leads. But Red Dragon’s secret to success is that, as well as being a Hannibal Lecter story, it is a bloody good detective mystery as well. Norton handles the exposition well, so both Graham and the audience are scratching their heads at how the killer does what he does. By the end of the movie, you will be transfixed to the screen, right down to the nail-biting showdown at the movie’s finale.
And the killer of the piece is one of Thomas Harris’s best works. Francis Dolarhyde might just be the best sub-baddie (Lecter always taking first place), out of the novels. He is a formidable, yet tragic figure. As the movie cuts to his manor for the first time, so we see the tortured soul behind the vile, disgusting acts, we cannot help but feel pity under the slow realisation of the twisted origin story at the heart of its tale. It creates a conflicting journey as the story unfolds. On one side, we are desperate for Will Graham to take down this monstrous killer, but as Ralph Fiennes (forget Voldemort, Dolarhyde was his best stint as a movie villain), takes us through Dolarhyde’s life, we begin to get a sense of siding with the baddie. For one, as Dolarhyde meets up with a blind girl who sees through his disfigurement and social anxiety, he begins to fall in love, and in a result, feel the need to change. Even though Ratner constantly reminds us that Dolarhyde is motivated, both mentally and sexually, by his serial killer obsessions, the love story between monster and victim is a truly endearing one, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. It says a lot about the writing of Red Dragon that we can be pulled from both a masterfully written detective story, as well as the character we all came to see, and actually to be happy to be dumped with a slow-burning romance. This is mainly down to the actors. Ralph Fiennes handles both terrifying and strangely pitiful well, jumping from both extremes with the ease of a seasoned actor. But credit must also be given to Emily Watson’s strong casting as Reba. She is made vulnerable due to her proximity to Dolarhyde and also her blindness, but the character is written well, so she never feels like the helpless female at the centre of this story. When Dolarhyde is free of his tyrannical alter-ego, Reba is the strong one of the two, perplexing him with her sharp wit and kindness. We are stuck between wondering if we want her to make her escape before something horrible happens, or if we want Dolarhyde to break free of his killer addictions and run off into the sunset with the one girl who sees his inner goodness. Of course, by the end of the film, it all goes terribly wrong, making this burning love story the hotpot for a tense endgame, which has you guessing right until the end.
But with both a strong love story, fascinating character study of a tortured killer and a detective story that requires a lot of attention, one wonders where Hannibal Lecter fits into all of this. True, there is less time with him here than we got with Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. But after the awkward misfire of Hannibal, Red Dragon’s less is more approach is welcome. Anthony Hopkins has lost none of the edge after all of these years, benefiting just as much from the viewer at being put behind the infamous Lecter cell once again. There is something so hypnotic about the performance as Lecter physically is the caged animal, yet he always seems like the only one in the story who is ever in control. Twisting almost every character with his sharp intellect, Ratner saves the best dialogue for Hopkins. His sly taunting of Graham reminds the viewer of the brilliance of Silence of the Lambs. Just when he borders on the line of being one of the good guys, he lashes out with an act so dastardly, he reminds everyone just why he is one of the greatest movie villains written. It is almost a shame when the chase between Graham and Dolarhyde peeks, because both the novel and script runs out of excuses to spend time with Lecter in the cell, relegating Hopkins to a supporting role part. But even from the shadows, this is Hopkins, or perhaps Lecter’s, film.
Final Verdict: Red Dragon returns Hannibal to the glory days with a gripping detective thriller with a well-cast roster of gripping characters.