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RED DRAGON

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Director: Brett Ratner
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 125 Minutes
Release Date: April 1, 2003

“Don’t you understand, Will? You caught me because we are very much alike. Without our imaginations, we’d be like those other poor dullards. Fear is the price of our instrument, but I can help you bear it.”

Film ***1/2

There has long been a golden rule in moviemaking, and that is one should never engage in doing a remake of a movie that is already considered a terrific movie, but Red Dragon can be regarded as the rarest of exceptions. Some might recall a 1986 cult favorite by the name of Manhunter, directed by the brilliant and stylish Michael Mann, which was adapted from the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon. Although Mann’s movie may have left out several key sequences from the novel, his movie still managed to be one of the most effective and chilling thrillers of the 1980s. Also, it should be noted that the movie was made in 1986, and the phenomenon of Hannibal Lecter had not been quite established yet.

In the aftermath of both The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, this provided yet another opportunity for Anthony Hopkins to return in the role everyone loves to see him play, even though the story requires that Lecter be limited to a supporting character, as the center story involves an FBI profiler’s search for an equally sinister madman. Red Dragon results in a chilling movie experience, with a strong narrative drive to it and a marvelous cast to match it, led by the irreplaceable Hopkins.

The movie opens in Baltimore in 1980, as we get a glimpse of Dr. Hannibal Lecter prior to his imprisonment. We learn of his relationship to FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton). Graham came to Lecter many times to get help on numerous suspects he was pursuing, but his latest case leads directly to his supposed mentor, resulting in Lecter’s arrest and nine life term prison sentence. Cut to several years later, where Graham is currently enjoying an early retirement with his wife and son in Florida. Graham’s former boss, Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), visits him, asking him to come out of retirement to help the bureau solve a series of brutal and grisly murders. He eventually agrees, joining the case a free lance consultant.

Graham has a special technique when tracing a serial murderer, which is the ability to think just like the vicious predator. With a glimpse of photos of the victims, and a private exhibit of the crime scene at nighttime, he can practically re-enact the murder with his mind. After exploring the murder scene at one family’s house, he concludes that the killer was entirely in control of his actions, not for a minute acting insane, and that his series of murders were highly organized and the victims carefully chosen.

However, Graham still feels that his expertise still leaves unanswered questions, and he soon finds himself returning to his wise old mentor, who’s now behind bars. He presents Dr. Lecter with the case file, asking for his opinion on the killer. Lecter, in his delicious trademark way, toys with Graham before eventually agreeing to help out in exchange for minor privileges.

We are then soon introduced to the menacing presence of Francis Dollarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), dubbed The Tooth Fairy by the newspapers. What makes this character so appealing is that even though he is clearly a horrific psychopath, he comes from a tormented background so that we fully understand why he is the way he is. Fiennes is perfectly cast here, being able to find the right note between insanity and sympathy.

Other key characters in the story include Reba McClane (Emily Watson), a co-worker of Dollarhyde’s who is blind and begins to fall for him. This angle of the story is definitely the most intriguing part, because it’s what sends Dollarhyde’s psychological nature spinning back and forth between gentle and raging mad. There’s also scandal-trash writing journalist Freddy Lounds (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who becomes the most unfortunate of pawns, as he comes face to face with Dollarhyde in a truly unforgettable moment in the movie.

The most surprising aspect of Red Dragon is that it is directed by Brett Ratner, who directed both Rush Hour movies. Although I will quickly go on note to say that Ratner is truly no Michael Mann, he does a splendid job of applying an atmospheric style all his own. The screenplay by Ted Tally, who adapted The Silence of the Lambs, is also strong in the way it includes parts that weren’t in Manhunter, such as the opening sequence, and the final confrontation as well. And as for scenes that were in the first movie, they play out to good measure, too, especially a well constructed sequence involving the examining of a note sent from the Tooth Fairy to Lecter.

As for comparing the two movies, I’d still pick Manhunter as the better of the two. The reason being that Michael Mann is a filmmaker who is able to create wonderfully unique atmospheres that enhance the story, which is something most directors aren’t very capable of doing. But Red Dragon is still a competent and effective thriller, with pitch-perfect story pacing and a darn good cast to boot this material.

Video ****

This is not only one of Universal’s finest performances to date, as far as video transfers go, but it is as of now top consideration for best looking disc of the year, even though we are way in the early stages. The image quality is striking right from the opening frame. Picture is complete, non-stop sharpness, and the colors in this presentation have a remarkable presence. Top-notch quality every step of the way!

Audio ****

For the suspense genre, audio is a strong factor, and the 5.1 one mix on this presentation is ever-illustrating proof. The numerous set pieces pay off very well, such as the dungeon-like feel of Lecter’s prison cell, and a later scene set in the prison gym. The music by Danny Elfman is a strong factor in the presentation, as any Danny Elfman score is. Dialogue is clear to the fullest, and dynamic range is ever so present in this awesome transfer.

Features ****

A single disc version of this movie is available, but if you want more bang for your buck, you should definitely take notice of this 2 Disc Director’s Edition, which is loaded with some thrilling extras.

Disc one features a commentary track by director Brett Ratner and screenwriter Ted Tally, a making of featurette, deleted scenes, a documented case file of Hannibal Lecter, a one on one interview with Anthony Hopkins titled “Lecter and Me”, a Hannibal Lecter timeline, and a special titled “The Criminal Profile of Hannibal Lecter”, where the legendary character is compared to the profiling of real life killers.

Disc two offers more, with a lengthy production diary called “A Director’s Journey”, which traces the making of the movie from early pre-production all the way up to the premiere. Also included is Brett Ratner’s first untitled student film, Screen Test footage, a look at the Make-up effects, a close look at how the crime scenes in the movie were constructed, and two trailers.

Summary:

Red Dragon is a knockout entry in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy that is more than one up from the over the top Hannibal, and though the story has been told before, it’s a strongly effective thriller on its own terms.