- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

"Red Dragon" proves a gripping movie and makes overpowering sense as a business proposition.
This is, of course, the third Hannibal Lecter thriller with Anthony Hopkins as the snobbish, fiendish, treacherous and now vastly overrated serial killer. Moreover, the latest installment has been contrived with considerable skill and effectiveness to close a fictional loop that began with the Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs" a decade ago. Reinforced by a top-flight cast and anchored by sensational, bloodcurdling suspense episodes, "Red Dragon" appears a safe bet to become a runaway hit.
The odd thing about this consummation is that "Red Dragon" is also a remake and an afterthought. It retrieves the original title of the Thomas Harris crime novel that introduced the Lecter character in a subsidiary role that had yet to display his prodigious emergence in a second novel, destined for prestige movie transformation and seemingly definitive embodiment with Mr. Hopkins.
"Red Dragon" was filmed in 1986 in a fitfully mannered but faithful and compelling version by Michael Mann. It was retitled "Manhunter" on evidently capricious and superstitious grounds: Producer Dino De Laurentiis had suffered a flop with the Michael Cimino crime melodrama "The Year of the Dragon" and didn't want audiences to be reminded of the fact.
They probably weren't, but they also failed to start a stampede to see "Manhunter," which starred William Petersen as the hero, an FBI profiler named Will Graham coaxed out of retirement after barely surviving an encounter with Lecter that led to the killer's imprisonment. A British bias was evident from the outset: Brian Cox played the briefly glimpsed Lecter of "Manhunter."
The new version is faithful as well, and comparison viewing will reveal that several scenes are identical in content and dialogue. However, "Red Dragon" enjoys the advantage of being linked very confidently to a successful franchise. It also takes every opportunity to remind us of the importance of Mr. Hopkins to the scheme of things.
In fact, it trumps "Manhunter" decisively in the prologue by retrieving the fateful encounter that was never shown in the first movie. Edward Norton as Graham miraculously counters and then survives Lecter's murder attempt when he discovers that the previously unsuspected psychoanalyst he has been consulting about a series of murders is actually the perpetrator.
As a result, the new movie condemns its 1986 prototype, "Manhunter," to an even more marginal relationship as part of the Lecter movie chronicle. "The Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal" and "Red Dragon" are an impregnable set of unsavory classics.
By turning back the clock on Lecter, "Red Dragon" also has the effect of placing the loathsome "Hannibal" at a slight remove. By the time Mr. Harris got around to a third novel, he was so indebted to Hannibal the Cannibal that he could deny the character nothing in the way of sensual or homicidal gratification. To question Lecter's superiority or prowess at that stage would have been to question his own success as the character's Dr. Frankenstein.
"Red Dragon" can manipulate fearful susceptibilities from the more humane status-quo ante. Fascination with Lecter's sinister personality is balanced by an identification with the decent characters who are made vulnerable while trying to break murder cases that implicate Lecter. Veteran agent Graham enjoys seniority over the rookie agent Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs" as both a crime-fighter and an adversary who gets under the skin of his criminal nemesis.
Graham supposedly possesses an intuitive flair for imagining crime scenes as killers might have experienced them. This ability does not necessarily help him solve the crime a set of mass murders committed by a butcher nicknamed the Tooth Fairy.
This monster turns out to be an admirer of the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter and prefers to glorify himself with a different sobriquet, the Red Dragon, derived from a William Blake drawing in the volume "Auguries of Innocence."
In fact, the agent himself tends to question this psychic element, in part because it didn't prevent him from getting caught off guard and nearly killed by Hannibal Lecter. However, it does allow the villain to taunt the hero with accusations of suppressed malice and criminality.
Coming from Lecter, such accusations are also devious compliments. The agent and the imprisoned Lecter conduct a series of conversations in which the former seeks clues to the identity of the Tooth Fairy, who is due to slaughter a third family during the next full moon. In response, Lecter is both foxy and vindictive, volunteering selective hints while also plotting to kill Graham by proxy.
At a certain point, the perspective shifts to place us in close contact with the hunted killer, the Tooth Fairy. He is portrayed by Ralph Fiennes and given misleading credit for trying to resist his homicidal demons, possibly out of affection for a blind co-worker played by Emily Watson.
Ultimately, Mr. Harris and the filmmakers are taking advantage of the audience's willingness to believe that even monsters can be reformed by the power of love and trust. Play along with this fond delusion, and you'll be ideally situated for panic during the finale.
Although the cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, worked for Michael Mann on "Manhunter," he has adapted the look of "Red Dragon" to harmonize with "The Silence of the Lambs." In addition, both the screenwriter, Ted Tally, and the production designer, Kristi Zea, of "Silence" have returned to collaborate on "Red Dragon," reinforcing the impression of pictorial and dramatic consistency with the prestige movie in the Lecter cycle.
Both Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Norton seem peerless in their roles, and Harvey Keitel is an astute choice to replace Scott Glenn as FBI supervisor Jack Crawford. He seems a much better personality and generational contrast while underplaying the mentor of Edward Norton. I'm not at all certain that Mr. Fiennes and Miss Watson have the advantage over Tommy Noonan and especially Joan Allen in "Manhunter," but their performances blend in effectively with the "Red Dragon" ensemble.
Director Brett Ratner, best known for the "Rush Hour" comedies, has adapted himself admirably to the "Silence of the Lambs" model. He reinvigorates the pretext by returning to the strengths of the most straightforward and accomplished movie in the series. From now on, it will be difficult to think of "Silence" without "Red Dragon" or vice versa.

***
TITLE: "Red Dragon"
RATING: R (Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity)
CREDITS: Directed by Brett Ratner. Screenplay by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis and Andrew Z. Davis.
RUNNING TIME: About 130 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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