Red Dragon is an entertaining, admirable adaptation of Thomas Harris' suspense novel, which was the world's introduction to everyone's favorite fictional serial killer, Hannibal Lecter.
The film, a prequel to Hannibal's exploits in The Silence of the Lambs, features a tremendous cast led by Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, some topnotch behind-the-scenes talent (particularly cinematographer Dante Spinotti and composer Danny Elfman), and a marvelously enjoyable kicker at the finale. It's smooth, professional, and creepy. It also has the misfortune of being a remake. Harris' tale was first told onscreen in Michael Mann's exquisite 1986 thriller Manhunter, and in comparison to Mann's film, Red Dragon is clearly a lesser work. For those who don't know or remember Manhunter, the new movie will more than suffice, but for those who do, one thing will become achingly clear: Red Dragon is like Manhunter without a director.
That's not to say that the direction of Red Dragon is necessarily bad; Brett Ratner, who helmed this installment, gives the film a fair degree of snap, knows how to provoke dread without, for the most part, resorting to cheap "Boo!" effects, and God knows his work here is better than it was on The Family Man and the Rush Hour movies. But to watch Mann's Manhunter is to see a director not only bringing out everything possible in his source material but positively transcending that source material; Harris writes pulp, and Mann turns it into art. Though Harris' story is scary and well-developed, the greatness of Manhunter all comes from Michael Mann; the film is lush and tactile, hypnotic and terrifying, and manages to make both hero and villain equally sympathetic. It's a seminal work in the suspense genre, and one of the few great films of the '80s. Red Dragon, by contrast, is a pro-forma Hollywood scare flick, albeit a nicely executed one. It's soulless, but it certainly gets the job done.
Norton plays FBI profiler Will Graham, who, as we witness in the film's pre-credits prologue, initially caught Lecter in 1980. Several years later, after Graham's early retirement, he is wooed back to the FBI to investigate another series of unsolved killings, perpetrated by a madman known only as The Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes). However, Graham's deductive powers prove insufficient to the task, and he finds himself, à la The Silence of the Lambs, seeking the counsel of the imprisoned Lecter to stop The Tooth Fairy from killing again.
This gives us several opportunities to enjoy Hopkins in liver-and-fava-beans mode, and despite the familiarity we all have with this character, Hopkins manages to give his every line reading a twisted spin that knocks you out. As he's playing a pre-Silence Lecter, his performance has a ferocity that was missing from last year's Hannibal; Hopkins is nearing 70, but there's a robust brio to his acting that younger performers can only dream of. It's lucky for us that Hopkins is paired with one of the few actors in Hollywood who can hold his own with him; Norton delivers a thoughtful, affecting turn as a scarred, scared man, and their scenes together have some of the friction of Hopkins' scenes with Jodie Foster a decade prior.
All throughout Red Dragon, the casting is eerily perfect. Though one might wish for more screen time with Mary-Louise Parker as Graham's suffering spouse, we get just enough with Harvel Keitel as FBI head Jack Crawford and the endlessly inventive Philip Seymour Hoffman as a scurrilous tabloid writer. Mary Beth Hurt and Frank Whaley pop up, uncredited, as two of The Tooth Fairy's victims, and Brett Ratner was certainly fortunate to get Frankie Faison and Anthony Heald to recreate their roles as Barney and the loathsome Dr. Clilton; Heald's first appearance was met by the audience with absolute delight. Best of the lot are Emily Watson, who plays the killer's clueless, blind love interest, and Ralph Fiennes, and they had mighty big shoes to fill, because the actors who played those roles in Manhunter, Joan Allen and Tom Noonan, were truly unforgettable. Yet Fiennes and Watson manage to give these characters a palpable poignancy; like Allen and Noonan before them, they carry the Red Dragon material to a different, unfamiliar realm of empathy, and their relationship proves oddly touching.
As you have probably gleaned, what makes Red Dragon, both the book and the movies it has inspired, a cut above standard serial-killer fare is their attention to character, so it's hardly a fault that the crime-solving storyline proves less interesting than the people it involves. (The plotting itself barely needs Hannibal Lecter, but who would deny us the fun of adding Hopkins' performance to the mix?) It's obvious that Red Dragon was only made to cash in on our continued fascination with Hannibal Lecter, but considering that its motives were purely capitalistic, the results are surprisingly enthralling. It's not Manhunter, but then again, very few films are; when you take your awareness of Michael Mann's adaptation out of the equation, Red Dragon is an impressive achievement indeed.
JONAH: A VEGGIETALES MOVIE
In what must stand as the weirdest double-feature of all time, I left the Red Dragon auditorium and proceeded directly to the one showing Jonah: A Veggietales Movie. As a newcomer to the Veggietales universe, let's see if I have this right: It's a film based on a popular television series in which a group of vegetables (and, technically, a fruit, because a tomato plays a prominent role) sing and dance while telling Bible stories. Um ... okay. Several adults I know swear by the greatness of the TV show - at least back when the program, like this current feature, was computer-animated - and it's not hard to understand why. The animation is bright and bouncy, the humor moderately witty, and as a religion-based educational tool - how many people know Jonah's place in nonsecular history aside from being swallowed by a whale? - it might just be invaluable. Having said that, the Jonah movie comes off as too much of a not-bad thing. A half-hour on TV is probably just right for this concept, because after the initial enjoyment wore off, the gags lost their edge, the storyline felt thin and protracted, and by the time a gospel choir of cucumbers (pickles?) began to wail, I could feel my brain turning into pudding. Granted, I'm not the ideal audience for this sort of thing, and the kids in the theatre seemed to like it, but here's a word of warning to fellow VeggieVirgins: If a child in your life begs you to take them to Jonah and you acquiesce, don't freak out - you're not high, it's just the Veggietales.