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MANHUNTER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan
Director:  Michael Mann
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  September 11, 2007

"I know that I'm not smarter than you."

"Then how did you catch me?"

"You had disadvantages."

"What disadvantages?"

"You're insane."

Film ***1/2

Will Graham (Petersen) is a one time FBI agent who deserves a little more than just a footnote to the story of one of the screen’s most popular villains in recent memory.  He’s the man who put Hannibal Lecter behind bars.

Manhunter, however, is not that story.  Instead, it’s the tale of Petersen and his relationship with the legendary serial killer, and how he uses it in a bizarre way to try to capture a new and equally menacing one.

I should back up.  Manhunter marked the first theatrical film for Michael Mann, who, before delighting audiences and critics alike with works like Heat and The Insider made his reputation as creator and executive producer of one of television’s most dynamic shows (at the time), Miami Vice.  For his first foray into movie making, he chose the popular Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon. 

It wasn’t the story of Hannibal Lecter (or Lektor, as spelled in this picture), but an intense yarn about an FBI agent with an uncanny ability to make his mind work in the same manner as the killers he hunts.  That’s good, because it often leads him to picking up clues his fellow agents would have missed, and often brings him right to the perpetrators.  But it’s quite bad for him personally.  As the film opens, he’s been away from the bureau since nabbing Lektor:  the process of entering the mad doctor’s mind left him scarred both physically and mentally, and it took a healthy stay in a psychiatric ward to rid himself of those maniacal, murderous thoughts.

But with the dawning presence of a new serial killer, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” (Noonan) because of his affinity for bite marks and tendency to molest his male victims, Petersen’s old boss, Jack Crawford (Farina) shows up to ask his help again.  He’s naturally reluctant, after promising his wife (Greist) and kid that he was through with that route, but his instincts kick in and he begins the investigation.  Like the wolf baying at the moon, Petersen doesn’t know why he must follow this thing through to the bitter end…he only knows that he must.

The killer appears to be following a lunar cycle pattern, giving the FBI only a short window of opportunity to identify him before he strikes again at the next full moon.  Petersen must therefore jump start his unique abilities by paying a visit to Lektor (Cox).  He arrives at Lektor’s maximum security cell under the guise of asking him to review the case files, but the good doctor knows the real reason:  Petersen is trying to get back into Lektor’s maddened and violent frame of mind in order to track The Tooth Fairy.

Comparisons to Silence of the Lambs are inevitable…after all, the film follows some of the same characters, and at the heart of it is also a mind game with Hannibal Lektor.  Mann takes some slightly different approaches with this material than Jonathan Demme did with his film, however.  While Silence was mostly psychological and about the nature of fear, Manhunter is less interested in involving the audience on such a subconscious level.  It’s a brooding and suspenseful cop movie, with emphasis on the investigation process and the character of Petersen.  Unlike Silence, Lektor is not the most interesting character here…instead, it’s the man who once almost destroyed himself by making himself think like a psychopathic killer.  What will happen to him this time?

The film is superbly crafted by Mann and well acted by the entire cast.  Cox makes for an intriguing, if less appealing, version of Lektor than did Anthony Hopkins in his Oscar winning role.  The picture also makes more use of simple lighting and shading to create effect and atmosphere, and less of the psychologically significant interior designs found in the later movie.  Fresh from the heels of Vice, Mann pumped his movie with plenty of synthesizer music, the only aspect that really dates the film.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The original title of Harris’ novel, Red Dragon, was scrapped for the movie for fear audiences would mistake it for an Asian or martial arts picture.

Video ***

The anamorphic transfer from MGM is impressive:  occasionally murky, but generally a very good rendering, with bright, natural coloring, sharp images, and no distracting grain or noticeable compression artifacts.  The film looks better than all previous VHS versions (which have been out of print for some time), and considering the 1980s usually produces some of the weakest looking DVD transfers, this one scores well.

Audio ***

There’s not a lot in the way of discreet rear channel usage or .1 signal, but the overall audio is clean, with crisp dialogue, and dynamic range during the more intense scenes.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Manhunter is a worthy first effort from Michael Mann, establishing him almost immediately as a master of mood, motivation and character within the realm of an intense setting.  No fan of Silence of the Lambs should miss the opportunity to see this terrific film.

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