Hannibal Lecter scores again in “Red Dragon.” Even to the multitudes familiar with every detail of Thomas Harris’ first installment of the Lecter trilogy as well as with Michael Mann’s estimable first screen version, “Manhunter,” Brett Ratner’s faithful, immaculately appointed new telling of the inescapably creepy tale will be an intense, unnerving experience. An outstanding cast, led by Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins in his third outing as the carnivore from Baltimore, lends a classy veneer to this sure-fire commercial attraction.
“Red Dragon” is an odd project in a number of ways, being a remake of the 1986 film that itself adhered pretty closely to the 1981 novel, despite the distinctively contemplative tone Mann’s visual abstractions and the heavy electronic score brought to the material. Both “Manhunter” and the new picture have the same producer, Dino De Laurentiis, as well as the same cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, and there are any number of near-identical lines of dialogue.
On top of that, Hopkins here reprises a role he originated in “The Silence of the Lambs” 11 years ago, although the action in “Red Dragon” begins at least eight years before that of “Lambs.” Jonathan Demme’s multi-Oscar winner is directly recalled in numerous other ways, from the expert carpentry of screenwriter Ted Tally and the presence of some of the same actors (Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison) in their old parts to the use of identical locations and the return of production designer Kristi Zea, whose reproduction of Lecter’s basement cell carries the odd frisson of an old home week.
So audiences will be excused for any feelings of déjà vu the new film might inspire. That won’t prevent them from watching it in rapt, anxious silence, however, as the gruesome crimes, twisted psychology and deterministic dread that lie at the heart of Harris’ work are laid out with care and skill.
Ratner’s previous credits on “The Family Man” and the “Rush Hour” pictures may not have inspired confidence that he was the right man for this job, but the director has done a serious, responsible job of conveying the drama and menace inherent in this tale of an FBI man’s urgent search for a methodical serial killer. Furthermore, he’s shown intelligent restraint, unlike Ridley Scott when he indulged every potential excess available in the frightening but overwrought “Hannibal” last year.” “Red Dragon” may not possess the nuance and under-your-skin insidiousness of “The Silence of the Lambs,” but its interest lies in deepening the material, not warping it.
First step in this regard was to expand Lecter’s role, a task tackled at the outset in a gripping eight-minute prologue that reveals how FBI investigator Will Graham (Norton) captured Lecter after some bloody mano a mano that left both men close to death.
To contrast Mann’s and Ratner’s approaches, all that’s necessary is to look at the opening scenes proper, which serve precisely the same narrative function of having Graham lured out of Florida retirement by his old bureau superior to help track down an insidious murderer, who has just wiped out two families in identical ways, and who almost certainly will strike again with the next full moon. Mann’s artfully stripped down compositions and placement of his actors against the sea and sky gave his film a metaphysical quality drenched in a sense of mournful inevitability. Ratner’s crisp, more businesslike style has a narrower, purposeful focus, dedicating itself to expressing apprehension through economical dialogue and subtle acting.
Graham is called back by former boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) due to his unusual adaptability to the mindset of murderers, his ability to think like them and therefore to catch them through anticipation of their moves. Reluctantly leaving his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and son behind, Graham shortly entices the cooperation of Lecter, who’s helped him before and just may have some insights into the methods of the so-called Tooth Fairy, whose slaying techniques have included propping up dead family members with mirror shards over their eyes as an “audience” for what he does to the final victim.
At about the 45-minute point, the audience, although not Graham, is introduced to the killer. Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), called “shy boy” by Lecter, is a peculiar loner whose handsome looks are disfigured by a nose-to-lip cleft. Aside from beefing up the running time for Lecter, who, as memorably impersonated by Brian Cox, appeared in only two scenes in “Manhunter,” “Dragon” is concerned with providing psychological backstory for Dolarhyde, who was terribly abused as a child and for whom mass murder is a major element in his effort at self-transformation.
A profound admirer of Lecter and a devotee of the mystical poet and painter William Blake, Dolarhyde finds his resolve slightly weakened by the attentions of Reba McClane (Emily Watson), a blind co-worker at a film lab whose vulnerability is exceeded only by her emotional accessibility and ability to connect with Dolarhyde’s insecurities. While the loony agonizes over what to do about Reba and Graham slowly closes in on his prey, Lecter, sitting calmly in his stone-lined cell, shrewdly plays both sides against each other, giving Graham helpful tidbits while feeding information to the Tooth Fairy that puts Graham’s family at the top of the killer’s hit list.
By the time of the drama’s spectacularly fiery climax, faithful to the book as “Manhunter” was not, the sense of cumulative tension is so palpable as to be almost oppressive. Startling follow-up scene proves even more intense, and serves as an effective bookend to the prologue’s battle between Graham and Lecter.
In undertaking a project destined to be held to close scrutiny, Ratner could not have surrounded himself with an array of more skilled professionals both behind and in front of the camera. Once again, Hopkins is mesmerizing as Lecter, and concerns about the age differential prove unjustified. If anything, the biggest difference in the actor’s appearance now versus a decade ago would seem to be in the increased size of his upper torso; otherwise, he may look a tad older, but not in any way that one sits there dwelling upon while watching the picture.
Filling William Petersen’s sizeable shoes as Graham, Norton gives a minutely calibrated performance that ably illustrates how the investigator’s mounting obsession overcomes his promise to his wife not to lose himself in the case. Fiennes once again proves chillingly adept at portraying a psychotic who can’t keep from killing, Watson is an affecting open book as the sightless woman who gets under the murderer’s skin, and Philip Seymour Hoffman socks over his showy role as an amoral tabloid journalist who becomes far more involved with his subject than he intends.
Of all the film’s outstanding craft contributions, notably Spinotti’s rich lensing, Zea’s evocative production design and Mark Helfrich’s smart editing, none boosts the proceedings more crucially than Danny Elfman’s score, which uses strings to more suspenseful effect than anyone since the heyday of Bernard Herrmann and otherwise employs unusual instrumentation to add flavor to an outstandingly conceived traditional soundtrack.