Red Dragon

I was flipping through the February/March 2006 issue of Access Magazine, one of those freebie publications you can pick up at music stores, and in their Movie Preview section I read that there is yet another Hannibal Lecter movie coming out this year.  Entitled either Young Hannibal: Behind The Mask (according to the Internet Movie Database) or Hannibal: Behind The Mask (which is what Access says it’s going to be called), this will be the fifth film in the series.  I’ve seen 3 of them:  The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon.  Only the first film in that list is worth a damn.
I screened Red Dragon (the 2002 remake of the 1986 original, Manhunter) on DVD on June 20, 2004 and I was so frustrated and disappointed with the movie I had to get my thoughts down quickly.  This is a fairly long assessment documenting much of the story and delving deeply into how I felt about it.  It’s hard to believe this film failed for me considering the astonishing cast.  I mean look at the number of Oscar-nominated/winning actors here:  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn (who has an uncredited voiceover).  A dream cast, really, and yet they all participated in a mediocre production.
The upcoming Hannibal prequel, which focuses on his early years, won’t feature Anthony Hopkins in his most famous role, naturally.  But one wonders if he’ll have a cameo or play another role.  A quick scroll of the credits for the movie on the IMDB doesn’t list his name, so if he does appear it will be probably be an uncredited surprise.  Either way, here’s my review of Red Dragon:

By Dennis Earl

Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon opens during a symphony concert. 2 people notice the off-key playing of one of the flautists: the conductor, Lalo Schifrin, who winces and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins), who makes curious facial expressions of his own. Guess what happens to that troublesome flute player?

Soon after, Lecter is paid a visit by a longtime, trusted colleague, Will Graham (a woefully miscast Ed Norton), an FBI agent with a particular knack for solving incredibly difficult serial killer cases by seeing things through the eyes of the killer. Lately, he’s been trying to determine who’s been killing several victims and then forcibly removing a different body part from each of their remains. He suspects there’s a cannibalistic reason for this ghastly practice. After briefly discussing the case with Lecter, who provides no insight for him, Graham makes a startling discovery. But before he can make his move, he is stabbed by Lecter who quickly gets him on the floor and threatens to eat his heart. Graham is able to fend him off by stabbing him back and popping a few caps in him.

The experience leads to the incarceration of Lecter and the voluntary institutionalization of the psychologically wounded Graham who, after his release, later retires to the Florida Keys with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and young son (Tyler Patrick Jones). But years later, his old boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) pays him a personal visit and woos him back in order to solve the murders of two families.

Let me stop right there. Red Dragon was the first novel written by Thomas Harris that introduced us to the simultaneously cultured and demented world of Hannibal Lecter. Apparently unhappy with the first cinematic version of this story (1986’s Manhunter), we have this remake which, I think, is one Hannibal Lecter movie too many.

Back to the story. The Red Dragon is a serial killer nicknamed The Tooth Fairy by the press because he likes to bite his victims so harshly that it leaves a mark. The only thing is it’s not his teeth he’s using. It’s his grandmother’s. Ralph Fiennes (so brilliant as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List) is let down by the overly empathetic script. Like some notorious serial murderers, his childhood defined his future. We get one audio flashback where his mother (an unconvincing Ellen Burstyn) threatens to slice off his penis if he wets the bed again. Now, really, would that be enough to turn you into a killer of innocent families? Why aren’t more examples given?

The Tooth Fairy works in a video duplication place where he fancies a blind colleague (Emily Watson) who, in turn, fancies him. Their relationship is odd. She does most of the talking and he just stares at her intently, listening patiently. She has no idea he’s a schizophrenic with homicidal and perverse sexual tendencies. He’s such a self-loather that he’s rather pleased by her literally blind attraction to him. There’s a truly odd scene where he’s watching videotape of the next family he’s going to kill and she notices how aroused he is, not comprehending it’s the MILF in the bikini that’s got his attention and not the hot blind lady feeling him up.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is cast in a thankless role as a sleazy reporter for The National Tattler. Graham and Crawford set him up one day by feeding him a mish-mash of half-truths and outright lies in order to get the attention of their killer. Unfortunately, the day after Hoffman’s story hits the streets, he’s kidnapped by the killer, forced to praise his greatness and slag the Tooth Fairy’s nemesis, Graham, on audiotape and is later discovered aflame literally glued to a wheelchair.

Red Dragon is an odd film. The more it plodded on, the colder and more depressed I felt. As I watched it, I wondered if it was me and not the movie that was bugging me. Sometimes, you’re just not in the right mood to watch a certain film and you can force yourself to get through a movie just to see how it all turns out. But the truth is I felt great before the movie began and by the time it ended I was miserable. Most bad movies you see you can accept for what they are without losing your cheerful disposition. You’re in too good a mood to let a mediocre film bring you down. But I had high expectations for Red Dragon. The TV ads I saw 2 years ago were mesmerizing. I’ll never forget Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant delivery. (“Before me you tremble!”) But when you see all that in context, it loses a lot. Or “oodles”, as Dr. Lecter would say.

Where do I begin with this mess? How about Ed Norton’s monotonous, emotionless performance? He is so good playing duplitious villains, as he did in Primal Fear and The Score, that he sincerely let me down playing the hero of this story. He is completely wrong for the role. We don’t care about him, I didn’t care about his family and therefore, never felt involved during the scenes where any or all of them are threatened by the Tooth Fairy.

Much of the movie doesn’t make any sense and as I sit here, I’m still asking myself obvious questions: 1. How would a tone-deaf flute player ever get past the auditions to become a member of a prestigious symphony? 2. How does that FBI guy crack the code of a secret message Lecter sends to The Tooth Fairy through an ad in the personals section of The National Tattler and how does The Tooth Fairy know what it really means? 3. Why is it necessary to shoot a potential rival for your woman’s affections with a silencer when you’re going to blow her and you away with a semi-automatic rifle and burn your own house down? 4. Who is going to risk their life to save anybody in this thoroughly dangerous situation even if a silencer wasn’t used? 5. Wouldn’t the neighbours notice the flames and the loud sounds they make when they burn stuff? 6. How are you able to drag a body into a burning house without detection, make the blind woman you’re both seduced by and threatened by believe you’re suicidal, pretend to act on that and then make her think the corpse is you when it’s the guy you shot with the silencer? 7. How did the blood splatter properly on her face and how the hell did the guy burn so fast when the Tooth Fairy just started the fire? 8. How did he escape without detection from any of the neighbours? 9. After succeeding with all of that, how do you arrive so fast at the Florida home of your nemesis and don’t even bother to bring your semi-automatic but rather a knife and a pistol?

The movie never has the courage to make The Tooth Fairy a true villain. It thinks naively that his peculiar romance with his blind co-worker is somehow keeping him alive, appealing to the little bit of humanity still lingering in him. Agent Graham says as much to her near the end of the picture. The problem is I never wanted to empathize with the guy, I wanted the movie to give me good reasons to hate him. Killing off families that I don’t care about and threatening characters who lack charisma doesn’t cut it with me.

Even Hannibal himself has become a disappointment. The more you see him, the more routine the movie is because you know he will: 1. play hardball with the FBI agent until he gets what he wants, 2. insult the guy and play on his fears, and 3. throw in a sarcastic quip, with or without an accent, depending upon his mood.

It’s funny. You turn on the DVD for this movie and the title page is better than anything that happens in the movie. Taking out certain lines of dialogue works very well for trailers and DVD title pages. Seeing everything in context leaves you greatly disappointed.

Director Brett Ratner is obviously paying too much homage to The Silence Of The Lambs here, from the look of Lecter’s jail cell at the behavioural correctional facility to Ed Norton’s walk down to his jail cell to their rather routine back-and-forths where Norton inevitably has to make deals with Lecter in order to get little clues about who the The Tooth Fairy is and where he might strike next. The movie lacks the humour of the Oscar-winning film, (its own attempts are really lame) it lacks rich characterizations, and, quite frankly, it simply lacks originality. As I was watching it, I immediately felt terrible because the movie was more of a rehash than a prequel. Much of it I’ve seen before and done better. Take the killings, for instance. Seeing dead bodies with little mirrors in place of eyes in the victims’ eye sockets just isn’t intense enough for me to care. Real killers come up with better stuff. Maybe it isn’t the idea, but the poor execution of that idea. Maybe I’m too desensitized to feel squeamish about the killings in this movie but then again, while I watched it I rarely felt the way you get when something rocks you in the tummy. Not once did this movie do that for me.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
3:15 p.m.

Published in: on March 14, 2006 at 3:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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