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Red Dragon

Universal // R // October 4, 2002
List Price: Unknown

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted October 5, 2002 | E-mail the Author
Silence of the Lambs was a pretty damn near perfect suspense film, a film whose (although often grossly fictionalized) crime pathology and rich characters equaled its scares and tension. Hannibal was, for me, a witless cartoon, a bitter abstraction that was neither as intelligent or as fun as it thought it was. The previous film based on Tom Harris first book, Manhunter was a flawed 80's offering that delivered the goods somewhat in terms of the characters and the mood but overall suffered from some awkward cutting and sidestepping of the source material in favor of slick 80's cop cheesiness. So, now we get to Red Dragon, the latest take on Harris first serial killer/ "Lecter" novel.

For those that do not know, Red Dragon is the tale that covers intuitive FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), the man brought down Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), trying to catch a serial killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes) because he murders families, breaking into their homes at night and mauling the female victims with bite marks. After leaving the FBI due to the near critical trauma he suffered capturing Lecter, Graham is reeled into the case and is once again flexing his intuitive muscles, dissecting the evidence, squeezing Lecter for insight, and trying to catch the Tooth Fairy before his next monthly slaying. Meanwhile, the Tooth Fairy, one Francis Dolarhyde, struggles with the demons that compel him to kill and the chance of redemption in the hands of a blind co-worker (Emily Watson), who is sympathetic and even romantically interested in this shy, troubled man.

Well, Dragon struck me as pretty pedestrian. Screenwriter Ted Talley's adaptation delivers all of the essential elements as well as the added scenes of Lecter that fans no doubt see as the films biggest selling point. And, you have a terrific cast, including supporting performances by Harvey Keitel, Mary Louise Parker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But it never quite gels. Norton comes off pretty bland and the role is underplayed and so straight he almost becomes transparent. As messy as it may be, in Manhunter, William Peterson at least had his moments as a far more wounded looking Graham and had the stylistic benefit of a film that conveyed Graham's unique perceptions much, much better. The first hour or so of Red Dragon belongs to Graham and it becomes a bit tedious, sparking to life again when the focus shifts to Dolarhyde, and then waning. Once again, Fiennes is fine, conveying the awkwardness and haunted nature of the character, but he just isn't as creepy, ugly, or as sympathetic as the novel or Tom Noonan's portrayal in Manhunter. Likewise the roles for Keitel, Parker, and Hoffman are so scant, peripheral, and zero-dimensional they do not greatly benefit from the talented actors cast in the parts. Emily Watson and Hopkins are the only actors I felt were able to take the material and shine with their characters, and of course, it was a given for Hopkins, who could phone in Lecter with ease. He overplays a few scenes but with a relish that is infectious.

So, taking into account a great cast and a solid script, I'm going to assume it is director Ratner's fault that the movie doesn't achieve greatness. I felt about Dragon the same way I felt about Rush Hour, the only other Ratner film I have seen. With Rush Hour, its like I was watching someone who clearly had seen lots of action movies, knew how to film them, but just couldn't. Like the person behind the camera had the technical skill but zero imagination. Dragon just feels flat and plodding, once again, like someone knew in a paint-by-numbers kind of way how to film suspense, but lacked the spark to draw out the emotion needed. The film wouldn't have been as plodding and the performances as underplayed with a director able to milk the necessary tension from the thrilling scenes and coax touches of personality from his actors. The tone of the film just lacks, and I liken it to a businessman plastering on a smile but you can tell he really isn't the least bit convincingly happy. In Dragon a tense surface is there, visually, but it is utter calm underneath. While Ratner and cinematographer Dante Spinotti conjure up some nice visuals and there is a nice, memorable, and clever scene here and there (particularly between Norton and Watson, or Lecter getting a privileged meal, and Dolarhyde's reaction to Watson wanting to touch his face), it was just enough to make the film entertaining but fell very short in slipping under my skin. Of course part of it may be familiarity, the film not being as taut for me because of my knowing what is going to happen. Yet, I've found that good suspense is good suspense. When done right,despite a person being aquatinted with the story, it can still be terse and able to twitch your nerves. Seven still remains creepy. I still worry about Cary Grant falling off Lincoln's nose in North by Northwest. But, Red Dragon never conjured any dread tickling its way up my spine.

So, for me, Manhunter was weak but had it's moments, Lambs was pitch perfect suspense, Hannibal was a self conscious, overblown caricature, and Red Dragon was fine but ineffectual.

Conclusion- When stacked up against the novels, films, the other adaptation, or just suspense/crime films in general, Red Dragon is just a fair film. I'll be all dorky and use a culinary reference, one Lecter would not doubt groan over. Red Dragon is like a stew with great ingredients but not enough spice, lacking any explosive kick. Its digestible, but it leaves you wanting another, fuller meal. But, there is not much out right now, so its probably a decent enough distraction if you've got an afternoon free, otherwise its a perfect rental.



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