Written by movies  |  08. October 2002

by Ben Kenigsberg The best thing one can say about Red Dragon, a Silence of the Lambs prequel adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris (and, implicitly, from Michael Mann's 1986 adaptation, Manhunter), is that it sets its sights much lower than its predecessors -- and succeeds for a while as a result. When the opening credits play over a montage of newspaper clippings, accompanied by a Danny Elfman score that sounds about 75% borrowed from Batman, you know you're firmly in B-movie territory. (Although cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who also did the photography for Manhunter, gives the movie an eerie, big-budget glow.) Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) has turned into such a pop-culture icon that it's probably impossible to make him scary anymore. Red Dragon doesn't even try. Rather, it paints him as a sort of Obi-Wan mentor to the film's hero, superstar FBI profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton). ("That's the fear we talked about," Hannibal says to Will. "It takes time.") Will is on the trail of a killer named Francis Dollarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) who butchers families under the light of the full moon. Will is trying to figure out which family will be next. Viewers of Manhunter, a hopelessly dated thriller with a few great scenes (despite one of the worst soundtracks in movie history), will be happy to learn that the storytelling in Red Dragon is more lucid. But that's ultimately part of the film's weakness as well. In Red Dragon, unlike in Manhunter, there's no hint of Will's contemplative side. In Manhunter, Will (played by William Petersen) was an obsessive, brooding gumshoe who couldn't bear the fact that when he messed up an investigation, people got killed. There's no time for guilt in Red Dragon. The fast pacing keeps the story moving along, but director Brett Ratner (who did the two Rush Hour movies and -- the horror -- The Family Man) fails to see the story at anything but a literal level. The camera never slows down; it never wanders Lecter's cell block, allowing us to savor the moment. There are bursts of excitement in the film -- usually accompanied by sudden loud noises on the soundtrack -- but there's almost no suspense. The movie becomes increasingly ridiculous in its second half, when we start to see events unfold from Francis's point of view. (Before that point, we see everything through Will's eyes.) Fiennes is a great actor, but he isn't menacing enough here. It's admittedly difficult for an actor to play a man with a split personality, but Fiennes hasn't mastered the art of having a conversation with himself. The first time the camera enters Francis's house, the camera wanders up the stairway and we hear a voice-over flashback of Francis being abused by his grandmother. The scene might not be hilarious if Francis's grandmother didn't sound like Mama Bates. Ratner is clearly paying tribute to Psycho, but he only succeeds in reminding us that we could be watching a better movie. The impressive cast -- Emily Watson as Francis's blind girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker as Will's wife, Harvey Keitel as FBI agent Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn in Silence), Philip Seymour Hoffman as a tabloid journalist -- is largely wasted thanks to the economical screenplay by Ted Tally, who also wrote the adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. No time is left for character development. Norton's part is so awkwardly written that he recites his dialogue with halts, sort of like Dubya. I fear that we'll never get another good film about Hannibal Lecter. By now, the filmmakers and studio heads have reduced the genius of Silence of the Lambs to a formula -- agent searches for serial killer, is helped by insane but eccentric criminal mastermind -- sapping it of all its emotional substance. Red Dragon isn't so much a bad movie as much as it is an inane one: a multiplex filler that keeps you occupied while you watch it, then vanishes from memory after it's over.

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