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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Red Dragon (HD DVD)
Red Dragon (HD DVD)
Universal // R // September 12, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 27, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Brett Ratner ranks just below Uwe Boll and Michael Bay to armchair film critics seeking out an easy target, and I'll admit that the director's long-standing reputation as a hack didn't leave me expecting much when I was assigned Red Dragon to review. I was surprised by how much I wound up enjoying it, though -- this prequel is in many ways a retread of The Silence of the Lambs with a dash of Psycho added for flavor, but at least it nicks from the best.

Come to think of it, the tail end of that last sentence is really all the plot summary you need, but to pad out the length of this review a bit: Set some time before The Silence of the Lambs, the movie opens with the capture of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, although if I have to point that out, turn back now). The natural instincts of FBI investigator Will Graham (Edward Norton) drew him to Lecter, although his final encounter with the charming cannibal nearly cost him his life. Despite his determination to shrug off the inherent dangers of tracking mass-murderers, Graham's unique capacity for sussing out details everyone else has overlooked makes him an invaluable resource for the FBI. Grudgingly ignoring his wife's pleas, Graham agrees to attempt to delve into the mind of The Tooth Fairy, a butcher who gouges out the eyes of his victims and replaces them with shards from shattered mirrors. The young mothers he's ravaged have been meticulously selected, but the trail of corpses stretches across the country, and there doesn't appear to be any immediate connection between them. The Tooth Fairy's mind proves to be nearly impenetrable, and Graham resorts to seeking the advice of the most talented forensic psychologist he knows: Hannibal Lecter.

As technically well-executed as it is in so many ways, Hannibal seemed to exist primarily as an excuse to give Anthony Hopkins a chance to ham it up and get a huge payday in the process. Red Dragon is a return to the skeletal framework of The Silence of the Lambs, anchored around an FBI agent hunting down a vicious killer and seeking the riddle-tinged advice of a cannibalistic madman along the way. It's borderline-impossible to see Graham in the bowels of a mental institution and attempting to charm Lecter into aiding the investigation without being struck by an extra-strength dose of déjà vu. Despite its at times too-faithful adoration of its predecessor, Red Dragon doesn't reach the heights of The Silence of the Lambs but still manages to be a considerably better than average thriller.

One tremendous difference between the two movies is that Buffalo Bill was such a peripheral element of The Silence of the Lambs; more of a plot device than a character, Buffalo Bill existed primarily to give the FBI an excuse for a manhunt as well as to periodically unsettle the audience. No, The Silence of the Lambs was more about the relationship between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, and that dynamic between investigator and cryptic caged animal is largely set aside in Red Dragon. Despite what the cover art suggests, it's Lecter who's the less prominent supporting character now. Red Dragon is better for it, though, as Hopkins doesn't bring anything new or interesting to the table as Lecter. It's an echo, not a performance.

Red Dragon compensates for the lack of Lecter with a remarkably strong cast that elevates the somewhat standard material. Edward Norton carries the movie as Will Graham, infusing what would otherwise be a stock suspense/thriller hero with a quiet intensity. Even though Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates were both inspired by the same grisly Wisconsin murders, it's Ralph Fiennes' Tooth Fairy who bears a greater resemblance to the Psycho killer. Red Dragon humanizes his character and examines him far more thoroughly than the cursory glance Silence gave Buffalo Bill. Despite the grotesque, unfathomable brutality he commits, Fiennes' performance is that of a sad, tortured man rather than the cacklingly over-the-top lunatic that the genre usually demands. As with Anthony Perkins' iconic character, I found myself siding with Francis Dolarhyde rather than wanting to see him gunned down in some cartoonishly over-the-top climax. The Tooth Fairy is unquestionably a deranged maniac -- Dolarhyde runs around his sprawling home heavily tattooed and fully nude, and the man eats a centuries-old painting at one point -- and to make a character like that sympathetic is no small feat. Still, the standout performance belongs to Emily Watson, who, as Dolarhyde's awkwardly charming girlfriend, offers an impressively convincing portrayal of a blind woman.

Every turn the story takes is earned and properly established, and it does a decent job subverting the audience's expectations. Everything you think will happen eventually does; it just comes later than you'd guess. The premise and execution aren't anything earth-shattering -- no one will be talking about Red Dragon in fifteen years the way people still are The Silence of the Lambs -- but it's an above-average thriller and is worth giving a look on HD DVD.

Video: Red Dragon's 2.39:1 theatrical aspect ratio is preserved in high-definition on this thoroughly impressive disc. The film's visuals steer clear of the flashy style-over-substance approach some may expect from director Brett Ratner, although there is some degree of stylization in its distinctive palette and possibly its thin veneer of film grain. The immaculate source material doesn't reveal any apparent flaws. Although clarity can be slightly variable from scene to scene, the level of fine detail -- in particular the texture of clothing and actors' faces throughout -- is often dazzling, almost to the point of being a distraction. The slight variation in clarity and detail in certain scenes may keep Red Dragon out of the very highest tier of HD DVDs released to date, but it's certainly not far behind.

Audio: Red Dragon isn't the type of movie that's teeming with cat-and-mouse chases, dozens of megaton explosions, or twenty minute shootouts, so the track doesn't have sounds hyperkinetically ping-ponging from channel to channel the way more bombastic thrillers generally do. The soundtrack may not draw attention to itself in that sense, but the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is still consistent and effective, owing most of its strength to Danny Elfman's score and a strong sense of ambiance. The music and effects are reproduced with strong dynamic range and a throaty low-end, and neither of them overwhelm the dialogue even in the film's most aurally intense moments.

Subtitles are provided in English, French, and Spanish, and the disc includes six-channel dubs in French and Spanish.

Supplements: There aren't any extras unique to this HD DVD, and none of them are offered in high-definition or even in anamorphic widescreen. Still, Universal packed enough onto this disc to keep most viewers busy for the better part of an evening, including an isolated score in stereo with some commentary by Danny Elfman in between cues. Director Brett Ratner and writer Ted Tally contribute a more traditional audio commentary. Ratner is bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, rattling off stories about how he first got involved with the project, the challenges of many of the stunts and effects, and constantly fighting both the clock and his actors' slow, deliberate line readings. Tally naturally focuses primarily on the story and adapting a novel with very little of the marquee character for the screen. Again, I went in expecting another few logs for the Brett Ratner bonfire but found him much less obnoxious than I was certain he'd be.

The disc's additional footage is grouped into three sections: full deleted scenes (5 minutes), extended scenes (2 minutes), and alternate takes (4 and a half minutes). Most of this footage was trimmed for pacing, and although very little of it is bad, it's not exactly missed either. The footage has optional commentary by Ratner, Tally, and editor Mark Helfrich, mostly consisting of brief notes explaining why this material was trimmed out. Tally defending a scene he thought Ratner shot poorly got a smirk from me, and I was also surprised to hear them point out Run DMC's Reverend Run in a bit role. The alternate takes are much more interesting than any of the other footage, in part because of what they don't show compared to the final cut and in part because of an excised voiceover by Frank Langella as the voice of the dragon.

Two featurettes bring in actual investigators: the sufficiently self-explanatory "Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer" has an FBI investigator describing his experiences with serial killers and relating them to Hannibal Lecter specifically, and "The Leeds Crime Scene" features a couple of homicide investigators showing the effects crew how the butchered family's blood would splatter. The best part is seeing the actors with their gouged-out-eye makeup applied, laughing and walking around the set. There are several other makeup and effects featurettes, including some before/after shots with digital manipulation (removing wires, removing a phone, painting on vastly different colors), the application of the mirror shard makeup, and the filming of the burning wheelchair sequence.

Anthony Hopkins speaks for four minutes about playing Hannibal Lecter, detailing what a ravenous reader he is (his method includes reading a script an obsessive/compulsive 250 times) in between a ridiculous number of clips from the film. "Lecter's FBI File and Life History" is a menu-driven feature whose title describes it well enough. Other extras include a forty minute production diary, twelve minutes of screen tests, Brett Ratner's first student film (silent and in black and white for maximum...I don't know what), a standard issue promotional EPK, and an eight minute set of storyboard comparisons.

Conclusion: No follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs -- prequel or otherwise -- has any realistic chance of matching, let alone surpassing, what Jonathan Demme and company accomplished in 1991. Red Dragon is still an above-average thriller, though, and even if it's not an essential purchase, the quality of the presentation and sheer volume of extras at the very least make for a compelling rental on HD DVD. Recommended.

Standard image disclaimer: the pictures scattered around this review were lifted from the official movie site and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of this HD DVD.
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