Mark Reviews Movies

RED DRAGON

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brett Ratner

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Mary-Louise Parker

MPAA Rating:  (for violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 10/4/02


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Review by Mark Dujsik

There’s a great scene of nostalgia in Red Dragon as Edward Norton’s Will Graham walks down the infamous jail corridor where Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter awaits behind a glass cage. Lecter is a frightening character because he can do so much harm from within that cell without ever laying a hand on you (even if he could). In literature, Red Dragon is the first in the “Hannibal trilogy” by author Thomas Harris. In the world of film, it’s the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. In a general statement of comparison, Red Dragon is far superior to the sequel and comparable to the original. Both Lambs and Red Dragon share a relatively similar plot outline (agent hunts killer, seeks help from Lecter, hunts killer some more) and are superb examples of great pulp. The key difference is that Lambs was elevated to art by focusing on its central characters and downplaying the police procedural elements until they were entirely necessary. Red Dragon rises above its pulp origins by emphasizing craft and eliminating any form of pretense. Forget arguing about style over substance; here, the style is the substance.

Graham is the man responsible for the apprehension of Lecter, which we’re treated to in the compelling opening sequence. Lecter is sentenced to back to back to back etc. life sentences, and Graham barely escapes with his life. Years later, Graham has retired and is living in Florida with his wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and young son, but his calm life is about to be interrupted by his old boss at the FBI Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) who comes to see him about the slaughter of two families, both committed by the same man. The clues are scant, so Crawford needs Graham, who has the ability to investigate imaginatively—a knack for seeing things from the killer’s perspective—for the case. Graham decides to sign on but only as an active adviser—no having to deal with the press. His police work only brings him so far. He realizes that the crimes had specific targets within each family, that the killer somehow knew the victims, and that he shows no signs of stopping any time soon. When Graham was working and got stuck for clues, his forensic psychiatry consultant Dr. Lecter would have some answers, and Crawford think it’s time for Graham to seek the advice of his former ally.

It’s about this point that we’re presented the killer in question. In one of the few misfires, screenwriter Ted Tally introduces Francis Dolarhyde, or the “Tooth Fairy” (nicknamed so for the bite marks he leaves on his victims), played by Ralph Fiennes, while an abridged history of his abuse as a child plays over the soundtrack. It gives us too much information at once but is still a rather insignificant flaw. What follows and has come before this is a rather detailed look into the investigation of the murders, and it works. There are no obvious holes in the process, and as Graham comes across a new piece of evidence, theory, or conclusion, it’s understandable and doesn’t feel pulled out of nowhere simply to advance the plot. They’re also never right in his face but overlooked simply for the effect of generating suspense. Even Graham’s flashes of almost psychic inspiration seem to flow simply from a detail most people would overlook. We’re allowed to understand the whole process, admire it, and, as a result, become engrossed in it.

The movie is genuinely disturbing, mostly due to the fact that director Brett Ratner has learned from the successes of Lambs and the failures of Hannibal.  Whereas Lambs garnered suspense from what we didn’t see, Hannibal went for full, gory detail and lost the suspense. Just before the confrontation between Graham and Lecter, there’s a scene that essentially rejects the entire concept of Hannibal’s execution. There’s a dinner scene in which the audience knows that the conversation about a missing flautist is directly related to a question about the meal itself. The key is that it’s only alluded too—there’s no embarrassingly grotesque brain flambé to be seen here. The rest of the macabre elements show a similar restraint. The crimes are never shown, and most of the violence is kept off-screen. Ratner shows the aftermath, set against Dante Spinotti’s moody and dreary cinematography. Even as events become more and more sensational, the whole film is somehow grounded in this style.

The characters don’t get too much time to development, but the impressively assembled cast of some of the best, most reliable actors working today is more than able to compensate for it. Norton is characteristically strong as Graham, giving us a hero who’s easy to identify with. Fiennes turns in a chilling performance as Dolarhyde and also manages to make him sympathetic to a certain degree—but not too much. It’s always nice to see Harvey Keitel at work, and he’s a fine choice as Graham’s old boss. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a louse of a tabloid journalist as slimy as we’ve come to expect from Hoffman. Emily Watson has an important role as a blind photo technician who attracts Dolarhyde’s affections, and though as great as she is, her character is essential to allow the audience to see a different side of Dolarhyde or at least the possibility of a different person if his female companionship in life was more like this. There are hints that such a life isn’t possible for Dolarhyde, particularly in a disturbing love scene in which Dolarhyde’s enjoyment comes from watching a video of his next victims.

And then of course there’s Anthony Hopkins and his unforgettable screen creation. As horrific a person Hannibal Lecter is, Hopkins gives him all the intelligence and charm that’s equally inherent to his nature. Lecter is not the antagonist of any of these tales, but he is a villain nonetheless—one whose villainy we revel in. Red Dragon knows this, takes it, and runs.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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