So you have a strong script from Ted Tally, Oscar winner for adapting the follow-up novel ten years previously. And you’re working from a novel that is arguably even better than the one that resulted in awards glory. You have Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, reprising his most iconic role for the second time. You have a dream supporting cast of well-respected actors, from Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Watson. What could go possibly go wrong? I guess, employ Brett Ratner.
Dino De Laurentis was nothing if not opportunistic. His 1986 production of Red Dragon, directed by Michael Mann and released as Manhunter (the title was changed because Dino didn’t want it to be confused with his flop Mickey Rourke vehicle Year of the Dragon) bombed at the box office despite being critically acclaimed. It was only natural, then, that he would try and make something off the back The Silence of the Lambs’ success.
First came Hannibal, a ropey novel turned into a slightly-less-ropey film by Ridley Scott. It was a huge hit thanks to the return of Anthony Hopkins as lip-smacking, courteous serial killer Hannibal Lector. Jodie Foster demurred, however, and was replaced by Julianne Moore. Never one to mince words De Laurentis commented that Moore was a better Clarice as she had “sex appeal”. It may just be the producer’s clumsy English, but he did seem partial to bull-in-a-china-shop comments. His view of Manhunter was that it was “no good”. Presumably it was this keen artistic sensibility that guided him to select Ratner as the director of the remake, which appeared hot-on-the-heels of Hannibal (one year later). That Michael Bay was offered the reins first gives you an idea of how far Dino’s head was up his own arse (although, just for the perverse curiosity’s sake, I’d have liked to see what Bay’s ADD approach would have yielded).
I think I was slightly more charitable to Red Dragon when it first came out, perhaps appreciating how much close it hewed to the novel. But in Ratner’s hands it becomes a tiresomely literal retread. Where Manhunter remained true to the source material, we frequently find Red Dragon is a word-for-word remount of scenes. But minus any of the style or atmosphere Mann brought to the material. Ironically, Ratner’s cinematographer of choice, Dante Spinotti, also lensed Mann’s film. Manhunter is iconic ‘80s noir, a film of deep, dark blues and uneasy synths. Ratner’s has no identity. And worse, no guiding intelligence. Mann’s smarts are in every scene, carefully composing the visuals and editing to work hand-in-hand with FBI agent Will Graham’s insights. Ratner can only clumsily trail the master at best; although he makes no attempt to copy Mann’s visual style, he shows undue deference to Silence, returning us to Lector’s familiar cell and bringing back staff members Anthony Heald (Dr. Chilton) and Frankie Faison (Barney). One of the few instances where Ratner leaves an impression is the single take leading us through locked door after locked door down to this dungeon.
A good example of how creatively bereft Ratner is comes in Graham’s survey of the house where the second murders took place. Norton’s Graham comes in at night with a flashlight (because dark = atmosphere, right? – we’ve all seen The X-Files) and, as in Mann’s film, he speaks into a tape recorder as he puts together the scene of the crime. But Ratner accompanies each insight with a barrage of quick cuts of the carnage; that’s what is going through Graham’s mind, see? Which is the most familiar and banal device possible. In contrast, Mann lets the sequence play out on Graham alone. Norton’s a bit unstuck in all this. He gives it his best shot, and certainly sells the idea of a fearful, nervy guy who doesn’t want to be there. But he has none of William Peterson’s low-key, haunted brooding. With Peterson, you can sense the pain. With Norton, Graham is just earnestly limp.
Tally’s script understandably beefs up Lector’s involvement; the prologue sets the scene with Graham’s realisation of Lector’s true nature and the ensuing face-off between the two of them. This should be dynamite, and as written by Tally there is little to complain about. But Ratner shoots it without any sense of atmosphere or build-up; the evidence of Lector’s guilt is just waiting there on the sideboard for Graham to open. There is more tension in Peterson’s account of the incident in Manhunter than there is here. Admittedly, Ratner can put together a perfectly serviceable action sequence; the fireworks at the beginning and climax work reasonably well. But “serviceable” is the key word here. You could find them in any thriller, but you’d wonder why such a strong cast is slumming it there.
Graham has three further encounters with Lector. One might argue this serves to lessen his abilities; in Mann’s film he has the one meeting to “pick up the scent again”. I don’t think this matters too much, as you can clearly see Norton enjoying himself with Hopkins; it’s the same kind of vibe you get from The Score, where the thesps are clearly superior to the film they’re in. But Ratner flunks the Rolodex scene that, as played by Brian Cox, may be the most wining Lector moment on film. There is no scene-setting here; the Doctor is just on the phone (apparently at his leisure to call whomsoever he chooses), and Hopkins can’t resist piling on a bit of ham. Hopkins is predictably fine, but there is no challenge here, and he looks every bit 10 years older than when he first played the role (not the 10-ish years younger that the film has in mind). Again, you might argue this doesn’t matter too much as it’s just nice to see him back (for the last time, unless we’re due an octogenarian Hannibal at some point). But it does rather press the point that it is all rather unnecessary and has been done far, far better already.
I’m afraid I’m going to continue comparing the two versions, as it’s the best way of illustrating how mediocre Red Dragon is. Ralph Fiennes’ Francis Dollarhyde is certainly established with more defrence to the book; he lives in his grandmother’s disused nursing home and we hear her voice (that of Ellen Burstyn) haunting his thoughts. So now we can make the connection with whose false teeth he is wearing, and identify the abuse that he has suffered. Certainly, Dollarhyde’s flash pad-with-a-view seemed entirely incongruous in Manhunter, and was the one area that stood out like a sore thumb.
But Dollarhyde as played by Fiennes never seems especially, well, special. I might point to the hair lip failing to disguise Fiennes’ handsome features, but it’s ultimately the director who cannot make his monster memorable. Tom Noonan’s trod the line between creepy and sympathetic with such skill that Ralph cannot compete. It was suggested at the time of Manhunter’s release that some of the excisions from the novel were wise, for the benefit of verisimilitude. Like Dollarhyde eating the Blake painting. Ratner includes it, of course, but it just hangs there with no meaning or resonance. Not even hyperbole. He includes it because it’s in the script. The exquisite scene in Mann’s film where Dollarhyde takes Reba (played by Joan Allen there, here by Watson; there’s little to choose between them, performance-wise) is similarly lacking in potency. Mann made it almost overpoweringly sensual; if his soundtrack choices in that film are variable, he decisively scores in that scene. Danny Elfman’s score for Red Dragon is mostly forgettable, the odd moments aside (his accompaniment to the sight of second crime scene is one of the few unsettling moments in the whole film).
So, although we know much more of Dollarhyde, there’s a sense of less-is-more. In Manhunter you feel his wounded rage. Here he is rendered just another psycho, despite Tally’s attempts otherwise. Philip Seymour Hoffman seems like perfect casting as Freddy Lounds, but his flabby schlub holds none of the weasely power seen in Stephen Lang’s iteration. You can only shrug when Norton grabs Hoffman, but you’re shocked when Peterson throws Lang across the bonnet of a car. And there’s a palpable horror to Lounds’ encounter with Dollarhyde, utterly absent here.
Mann eschewed Harris twist ending. Perhaps he though it was a De Palma moment too far. Or maybe it felt too contrived. It’s undoubtedly the case that it became a de rigueur move for any thriller or killer movie over the next 10 years. Again, Ratner reinstates the scene. He puts it together with an efficiently action-orientated eye. While Mary Louise Parker benefits from having something extra to do in the wife role, Graham’s psych-out of Dollarhyde is faintly silly as showcased by the director’s pedestrian method. This is another point about Harris’ novel that makes you realise how shrewd Mann’s choices were; Dollarhyde’s back-story is so derivative of Norman Bates that you risk looking ridiculous even going there. And you ensure that you will look daft if you’re a approach is utterly prosaic.
Red Dragon isn’t a bad film, but it demands attention for its resolute blandness. This is a textbook case of what happens when you employ a director with no feel for material or genre. It could have been worse, certainly (the hash Ratner made of X-Men: The Last Stand bears testament to that). That there is a classic film version of Red Dragon in existence makes Brett’s failure neither here nor there. It might have been a shame, for completion’s sake, if this had ridden on the coat tails of a superb screen version of Hannibal. The lack of reason to exist is highlighted by the film’s last scene, where the visit of a young FBI agent is announced to Lector; all Red Dragon amounts to is a scene-setter for Silence. As it is, Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins remain one-for-one starring in great Hannibal Lector movies.