Red Dragon (2002) Movie Review

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” is based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name, which was first adapted into a feature length film by Michael Mann (“Ali”) in 1986 as “Manhunter”. This was before Hannibal the Cannibal entered the American lexicon, and before the success of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”. Seeing dollar signs but unable to persuade the reclusive author (Harris writes a novel a decade, give or take), the Powers That Be has elected to go back to Harris’ original entry into the series, “Red Dragon”. This time around, Anthony Hopkins, who has become synonymous with the Hannibal role, returns as a younger version of his character.

“Red Dragon” opens with FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) capturing the then-civilian Hannibal Lecter, who was still at large in the film’s prelude. The arrest comes to Graham at a price, and the FBI agent soon retires to a life of seclusion. When a serial killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy surfaces to slaughter two families, Graham’s ex-boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) recruits his former ace agent back into the game. Graham agrees, out of a need to save lives and not because he misses the old life, which still haunts him.

As Clarice Starling did in “Silence of the Lambs”, Graham goes to the object of his nightmares and greatest fear, Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), to help solve the Tooth Fairy murders. (Actually, the Crawford character sent Starling to interview Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” because of Graham’s success in “Dragon”.) Lecter is all too anxious to help, since it means he can extract favors from Graham in return. As the investigation continues and Graham gets deeper and deeper into the psyche of the Tooth Fairy, it becomes obvious that Lecter has other things in mind — like killing Graham!

“Red Dragon” is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Harris’ novel. Screenwriter Ted Tally seems to be taking very little liberties with the book, but he does make one big mistake in my opinion. It concerns Graham’s relationship with tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the sequence of events that leads to Lounds being engulfed in flames. The movie goes out of its way to deflect Graham’s part in Lounds’ unfortunate end, whereas the novel makes it very clear that Graham knew what would happen to Lounds, and did it anyway out of what can only be called a need for petty vengeance. While Lecter, upon hearing about Lounds’ demise, does comment to Graham about Lounds, the screenplay never takes a firm side on the issue. This is unfortunate because the sequence helps to shed light on Lecter’s assertions that Graham is more like him than the FBI agent is willing to admit.

At the heart of the movie is Graham’s relationship with Lecter, and knowing this, one can’t help but feel a little disappointed by what appeared onscreen. Director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”) fails to capture a lot of the things that makes Lecter a menacing figure, which leads me to this conclusion: Lecter is not very scary in “Red Dragon.” This isn’t the fearsome entity that terrified Jodie Foster’s poor Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs.” This Lecter just appears…bored. (Maybe Hopkins, despite the high pay for this extended cameo, is ready to hang up the character for good?)

The other half of the film’s core is Edward Norton (“Fight Club”) as Graham. While I believe Norton could possibly become almost as great an actor as co-star Hopkins one day, he’s not all that believable as Will Graham. The Graham character is supposed to be a troubled soul, a man with a cursed gift for tracking serial killers. An older, more mature actor that could provide gravitas would have been more appropriate in this part. Norton is an obviously gifted actor, but he just looks way too young for the role. The blond highlights don’t help.

“Red Dragon” is a competent enough crime film, I suppose. But strangely enough, for a film made in 2002, the movie’s most efficient enemy is time. When the novel surfaced in the early ’80s, the serial killer genre was still a relatively new one. You could even say that Thomas Harris gave birth to, if not the genre, then the genre’s mass popularity. Nowadays you couldn’t walk through a bookstore without tripping over a serial killer novel, but not so back then. Because it’s a dated film, and because the screenplay is so faithful to Harris’ novel, there’s a sense of “been there, done that” with “Red Dragon.” There is nothing new here, and certainly nothing you couldn’t get from a standard episode of “Profiler” or “Millennium”, both TV series about FBI agents who track serial killers.

It’s interesting to note that despite Harris’ proclamation that he does not plan on continuing the series, the Powers That Be (that is, the studio suits that owns the Hannibal character), has other ideas. (Read “Hannibal” to understand more.)

Brett Ratner (director) / Thomas Harris (novel), Ted Tally (screenplay)
CAST: Anthony Hopkins …. Hannibal Lecter
Edward Norton …. Will Graham
Ralph Fiennes …. Francis Dolarhyde
Harvey Keitel …. Jack Crawford
Emily Watson …. Reba McClane
Mary-Louise Parker …. Molly Graham
Philip Seymour Hoffman …. Freddy Lounds

Buy Red Dragon on DVD