Red Dragon (2002)

Director: Brett Ratner

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Remakes often confound me. With stage plays, it is easy to understand the enthusiasm for multiple versions of a story, always with different actors playing the same roles, speaking the same lines. But, with movies, my attitude is a little bit different. I think, when you get it right once, and it is committed to film for all eternity, there doesn’t seem much need to fix what isn’t broken. I don’t understand why we need three versions of “King Kong,” and the endless barrage of horror and science-fiction remakes is as disheartening as it is boring. Of course, not all remakes are a waste of time. Some of the most heralded movies ever made are themselves remakes. Perhaps the best examples I know of are “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), stories which had first been filmed during the Silent Era. “Red Dragon” is the second film adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel of the same name, the first being 1986’s “Manhunter.” In terms of improvement vs. unnecessary, where does “Red Dragon” rank as a retelling? Actually, it fits somewhere in-between.

As we know from “Manhunter,” FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) is lured out of retirement to aid in the apprehension of Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), wanted for the murders of two families. Will gets stuck, as he had in a previous case on which he had consulted with Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Little did Will realize he was working with another serial killer. The two almost kill one another, with Will gaining the upper hand and putting Dr. Lecter behind bars. This was the incident that led to Will’s retirement, and now he must overcome his fears by seeking out Hannibal’s counsel once more if he is to have any chance of figuring out Dolarhyde’s motive, identity and whereabouts.

This representation of “Red Dragon” is more faithful to its source material than “Manhunter” (which has a remarkably different ending) is, but fidelity does not automatically make it better. The original film kept the focus on Will Graham, leaving certain members of the cast with very little to do. Although those other characters are more fleshed out (in particular the character of Reba, Dolarhyde’s blind girlfriend, played by Emily Watson), I have to say that the extra screen time given to William Petersen’s Will Graham allowed the audience to see how he could easily become the evil he hunts, given the right push. Edward Norton, an actor whom I have had great respect and admiration for ever since I saw both “American History X” and “Fight Club,” doesn’t project this image at all. He shows some of the same ability to get into the killer’s mind, but a lot of it has more to do with visual aids than with instinct.

As you might expect, Anthony Hopkins is given a bigger role than Brian Cox was sixteen years earlier. He does a better job of showing how Lecter can get into Will’s head like no one else can. The filmmakers know that Hopkins has been the heart and soul of this series, and they also know what an unforgettable performance he gave in “The Silence of the Lambs.” To that end, the set designers have reconstructed Hannibal Lecter’s cell in perfect detail. We also finally get to see, in the prologue, the flautist Benjamin Raspail whom we’ve been told about in both “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.” An especially nice touch is the casting of film and TV composer Lalo Schifrin as the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra’s conductor. With Francis Dolarhyde given greater attention this time around, Ralph Fiennes is able to craft a better picture of the mentally tormented man who refers to himself as the Red Dragon. You get more of a sense that this guy is someone to be pitied and condemned all at once. He’s a much more damaged individual, whereas Dolarhyde as played by Tom Noonan was too tall to be anything but frightening.

Two other standouts among the cast are Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mary-Louise Parker. Hoffman portrays tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds as every bit the slimy character that Stephen Lang did. Hoffman is a joy to watch, and it’s a pity his role isn’t a larger one than it is. Although Molly Graham still doesn’t have very many scenes, Mary-Louise Parker makes the most of her small part. Unlike Kim Griest, Parker at least is given more important things to do than just standing around looking concerned.

The best remakes don’t rely too heavily on what came before and just try to do their own thing. This method doesn’t always work, however, as straying too far from the source can lead to a giant mess that is either too silly or is just nonsensical. If you’ve already watched “Manhunter” before, this one is also worth seeing. Be warned, however. While “Red Dragon” is thankfully not a shot-for-shot remake like “Psycho” (1998), the plot has enough in common with “Manhunter” that it wouldn’t do well to watch the two back-to-back. You definitely want to leave a decent amount of space between your two screenings. If you haven’t seen “Manhunter,” then it’s not a problem to go ahead and watch “Red Dragon”. It’s a good movie on it’s own, and probably the best film in the career of director Brett Ratner. If you truly wanted to compare the two, you are likely to find that there are certain things which each does better than the other. For me, the two casts are more or less equal, “Manhunter” has the better story and soundtrack, while “Red Dragon” features superior cinematography. Ultimately, I prefer “Manhunter” for its portrayal of a hero character on the cusp of being the thing he has spent a career tracking down. This I find much more compelling than the standard tale of a villain corrupted as a child from years of abuse.

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