Janus Film Review Retrospective: Red Dragon (2002)

as reviewed by Daniel R. Browne

Format Reviewed: DVD/Universal Studios (2003).


The marketing tagline for Red Dragon (2002) is ‘Before the Silence’, and this is a succinct - if wholly unsubtle - indicator of the film’s raison d’être. The grandstand success of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) established a blueprint for subsequent adaptations of the Thomas Harris novels, alongside a very clear focal point: Anthony Hopkins. Sir Anthony’s legendary, Academy Award-winning portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter set a new gold standard for celluloid villainy. Hopkins first returned to the role in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001): a striking-but-flawed adaptation of a wholly inferior novel, that was severely hampered by the absence of Jodie Foster, who declined to reprise her own previously honoured role of Clarice Starling (who was played by Julianne Moore in Hannibal). Though a modest critical and financial success, Hannibal paled in comparison to its predecessor, and a reinterpretation of Red Dragon was greenlit, for the express purpose of providing one final ride in the sociopathic saddle for Anthony Hopkins.


Dino De Laurentiis, the noted Hollywood producer and holder of the filmic rights to the Harris novels, couldn’t resist slandering the original celluloid adaptation of Red Dragon - Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) - amidst the hype for this new version. De Laurentiis, who in his lifetime was infamous for his boorish persistence, delusional asides and ruthless tendencies, had his fingers burnt by the relative failure of Manhunter, and he was left blindsided and humiliated (in his mind, at least) when The Silence of the Lambs - a film that was licensed from his rights, but was otherwise unrelated to his interests or companies - was released to rapturous critical acclaim. Evermore embittered by another’s success (and by his own inability to make lightening strike twice with Hannibal), De Laurentiis lashed out at Manhunter, and claimed it failed because it wasn’t the ‘real’ Red Dragon. This is a scurrilous accusation, rendered all the more absurd for being proffered by the individual who rechristened Mann’s film ‘Manhunter’, purely because he was concerned audiences might think ‘Red Dragon’ was a kung-fu film.


Still, with Anthony Hopkins back on board, and with a stated desire to hew rather more closely to the source material, the so-called wrongs of Manhunter would be righted by a sleek and shiny silver screen reinterpretation of Red Dragon. Alas, and in the immortal words of Doug Bradley’s Pinhead: ‘Not quite’. Whilst this version of Red Dragon does indeed boast a commendable turn from Hopkins, he is so comfortable and content within the role that aspects of his performance, whilst certainly not lazy, veer perilously close to knowing self-parody. He’s unapologetically hamming it up for our enjoyment, and though this is never anything less than entertaining, it feels somewhat reductive. The sardonic leer and searing menace of Hopkins’ Lecter, circa 1991, is gone, and we are left with little more than an affectionate-if-careworn reminder of past glories. So, if a half-speed Anthony Hopkins is the sweetest sensation this (supposedly gourmet) meal has to offer, the rest of dinner is unlikely to titillate the taste buds. We don’t even need to wait for the pudding to secure proof, for this particular version of Red Dragon is a decidedly lank affair, that trundles along as if lost in the torpor of its own unnecessary existence.


Starring alongside Hopkins is Edward Norton, who steps into the lead role of special investigator Will Graham. The Graham character is not your common or garden variety detective. Rather than firepower or excess bravado, Graham’s primary instrument is elevated empathy. William Peterson, who portrayed the character in Manhunter, skilfully conveyed this essential characteristic (albeit with a distinctly 80s flavour). It’s an effective and underrated take on the character; something far beyond Norton’s efforts in this later incarnation. In what is now the customary Norton approach, many of the established traits and neuroses of the Graham character are stripped away, in favour of a more linear and less nuanced interpretation, that reeks to the highest heavens of egoism and indifference. Norton doesn’t assume the role of Graham; rather, he waters it down into an especially dull version of Edward Norton. The tortured vulnerability and pathos of Will Graham is nowhere to be seen, and observing Norton’s Graham facing off against Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter is akin to watching God chewing gum. It’s darkly comical, but completely misses the point.


The rest of the cast consists of typical Hollywood luminaries who are content to sing for their supper. Harvey Keitel is atrocious in the role of Jack Crawford, Graham’s former boss and mentor. It’s an admittedly minor role, but Keitel displays total contempt for the importance of the character by manifesting apathy so complete, you could spread it like Clover. Emily Watson gives it some welly in the crucial role of Reba McClane, and she conveys the character’s blindness with a convincing sensitivity, but she offers nothing to eclipse Joan Allen’s previous take on the character. Mary-Louise Parker (playing the role of Graham’s wife, Molly) might just as well be feeding lines to Norton, for all the effort she is required to make. Anthony Heald (reprising his performance from The Silence of the Lambs) is suitably oily as Lecter’s despised gaoler, Dr. Frederick Chilton, but he’s a largely token addition. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman elevates proceedings significantly, by giving loathsome life to Freddie Lounds, the seedy tabloid reporter. Hoffman is delightfully versatile in his interpretation of Lounds; dear Freddie is an ignoble creature, yet thanks to Hoffman’s deftness of touch, you feel genuine sympathy for him when he meets his (very sticky) end. What a talent Hoffman was, and what a loss he remains.


With Edward Norton as our hero, and Anthony Hopkins once again donning his mask in the mephistophelean guise of Dr. Lecter, Red Dragon needed a full-blown antagonist, and it gets one in the form of Francis Dolarhyde - the eponymous dragon - as played by Ralph Fiennes; another titan of British theatre. Fiennes’ terrifying portrayal of concentration camp commandant Amon Göth, in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), is very much the desired note. Sadly, Fiennes’ performance in Red Dragon falls well below this imperious standard (which is unsurprising, given the toll inhabiting such a fiend inevitably takes on an actor). Fiennes’ Dolarhyde, whilst convincing, comes across as a little forced and one dimensional, and he never seems to escape second gear. At its best, his performance is an occasionally affecting depiction of a wounded victim, driven to unspeakable violence by societal neglect and sustained psychological abuse. Too often though, it resembles a genre cliché marooned on a barren island of repetition. What’s more, given the dual presence of Hopkins and Fiennes in villainous roles, so much scenery is devoured it’s a wonder the film doesn’t end up drifting in the vacuum of space.


I’ve said almost nothing about the direction of Red Dragon, and for very good reason. We are presented with the vapid, soul-sucking presence of Brett Ratner - one of Hollywood’s foremost hacks-for-hire - so it’s little wonder the film looks so damn bland. Red Dragon seeks desperately to suckle on the gilded teat of The Silence of the Lambs - and gags every single time - because its director has no sense of personal vision, or even the vaguest semblance of original thinking. His actors can sense he’s a jobbing clown, who holds precisely one virtue: he can approximate a proper filmmaker’s work (and do so under budget). He was Dino De Laurentiis’ puppet; a useful idiot who asked no questions, before trotting down to the bank to collect his money. Instead of an artist’s poise, alongside carefully manufactured tension, we find only tedium, dreariness and outright boredom. True, Ratner’s film is closer in content to the book (as planned), but the overall tone is dictated purely by the performance of the individual actor. This is because the director is a clueless purveyor of utter ineptitude. On a related note, I would like to take this opportunity to condemn (the usually reliable) Danny Elfman’s score, which is a shrill, unimaginative and thoroughly unwelcome chunk of musical misery.


It’s entirely fitting that a motion picture which seeks to plagiarise a masterpiece (whilst simultaneously disparaging the name and standing of another excellent film) should wind up being so painfully average and frankly, completely pointless. It gives audiences one final glimpse of Anthony Hopkins in the role that enshrined him as an icon of pop culture, but beyond that, what purpose does it serve? A rhetorical question, with an alarmingly simple answer: none. Red Dragon is little more than a well-dressed parasite. It breathes the same air as The Silence of the Lambs, and promptly billows into the wind (with barely a gentle breeze to mark its passing). It attempted to draw attention to itself by stamping on Manhunter, only to draw back a stump. For all its infidelity to the source material (and the absence of Anthony Hopkins), Manhunter is a vastly superior experience, in every measurable way; a true cult classic, in fact. Time has been very kind to Michael Mann’s film, and rightly so. As for the motion picture that was meant to supplant its standing: time has already forgotten it. To paraphrase the good doctor himself (in a scene from a much better film): ‘It was the best thing for it, really. The therapy was going nowhere’. Thanks but no thanks, Dino.

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