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If Jim Morrison and Ozzy Osbourne had a son ...
Review written by: Alex Sandell
*Spoiler Alert* There are some minor spoilers in the review below. If you'd like to avoid all spoilers, I'd recommend skipping this review until after watching the movie.
Taking into account that I consider The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal to be two of the best motion pictures ever made, and have seen both dozens of times, I feel well-qualified to be critiquing Red Dragon. This is the first story in what has been dubbed the "Hopkins' Hannibal Trilogy." While not a bad movie -- taken in its own right -- the film is far from great. Being something of a connoisseur, anything less than perfection doesn't meet my expectations for a film featuring Hannibal Lecter.
The film starts strong. A scuffle occurs between Lecter and FBI Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), leaving both characters next to dead. After his encounter with Lecter, Graham retires from the FBI and moves to Florida. His life of leisure is interrupted by Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), who asks Will to come out of retirement to help solve a particularly gruesome case.
Graham refuses Crawford's offer until he sees photographs of two families fallen victim to a madman known as "The Tooth Fairy" (Ralph Fiennes). Graham reluctantly agrees to work on the case, is partnered up with Chris Tucker and sent to Hong Kong, where numerous comedic hi-jinks ensue. Okay, I made the "partnered up with Chris Tucker and sent to Hong Kong" thing up, but the story for Rush Hour 2 isn't much more clichéd than what we are provided with in Red Dragon.
It didn't take me long to figure out why it is they selected Brett Ratner, the guy behind both Rush Hour films, to direct this purportedly petrifying horror movie. Ratner is a conventional director who was handpicked to direct a conventional film. This isn't the dark, frightening, compelling and mesmerizing vision Jonathan Demme put before us with The Silence of the Lambs. This isn't the grotesque orgy of blood and romance that Ridley Scott splattered across the screen with Hannibal. This is a minor league director whose only "vision" is to please the film's producers.
Brett Ratner doesn't know Hannibal. Instead of trying something new, he gives us The Silence of the Lambs Lite. Whenever Ratner fails to scare -- which is most of the time -- Danny Elfman jumps in with his overbearing symphonic soundtrack, hoping to save the day by giving the audience a start.
Ratner and Elfman aren't the only ones causing problems with Red Dragon. I would also point a finger in the direction of the screenwriter, Ted Tally. Tally is doing nothing but riffing off his superior work on The Silence of the Lambs. He's going through the motions with this script; tapping words out as fast as possible so he can bring in that huge paycheck.
Tally claimed that the reason he refused to write Hannibal was due to its brutal violence. I think he was scared away by it being too fresh, unique and divergent from The Silence of the Lambs. Tally apparently only had one idea in his head, and since having it, his nuts have been cut off and served up with some nice Chianti.
Red Dragon never reaches the levels of grit and gore that were attained in both The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Tally's newfound feeble nature successfully dulls the edge the series had during its first two installments. In the process of toning the picture down, he also steals away much of Hannibal Lecter's wicked genius.
The Silence of the Lambs managed to make a man locked in a room terrifying. Lecter sniffed out and attacked people's weak spots and sent even the strongest of them away with feelings of self-doubt. In Red Dragon Hannibal huffs and puffs while hissing out juvenile insults that are more laughable than demeaning.
With a director deprived of talent, a neutered screenwriter and a hopeless Hannibal, what are we left with? Nothing but the actors. At least we're given some good ones. Unfortunately, many of them are stuck in thankless roles.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is stuck in a minor part, rather than the role of Will Graham, which belonged to the talented thespian. The perfunctory Ed Norton seems a little out of his league with his leading role in the film. Mary-Louise Parker is Carol Brady to Ed Norton's Mike. Harvey Keitel is there to put another respectable name in the credits. Finally, there's Anthony Hopkins.
In Red Dragon, Hopkins is channeling his performance from The Silence of the Lambs and then phoning it in. With Hannibal, Hopkins expanded upon what he had done in Silence. Hopkins' failure in Red Dragon can be chalked up to Tally not giving the poor guy anything to, ahem, "sink his teeth into." The majority of Lecter's scenes end up as mechanical moments not necessary to move the film forward. Hannibal's hints are never as valuable as the, "we begin by coveting what we see every day" type nuggets he playfully handed Starling in Silence. Why attend a Hannibal Lecter film if Lecter is irrelevant to it? Two reasons: Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson.
Fiennes does a fine job playing The Tooth Fairy. His performance is never as eerie as Ted Levine's was in Silence, but he does give us a slightly more layered nutcase than Gary Oldman did with Hannibal's campy Mason Verger. Although you get most the Fairy's back-story through moments stolen straight out of the Psycho films, there is some complexity to the character. It is when the understated Fiennes meets Emily Watson, who is playing Reba McClane -- an innocent blind girl who falls in love with the psychotic killer -- that a breath of fresh air is, at long last, exhaled into a dead script.
If you focus solely on Fiennes's and Watson's chemistry, you may be able to leave the theater feeling like you saw something worth your while. You can honestly believe this unlikely pair could genuinely fall in love. You can sense years of loneliness and abuse in just a few simple gestures when The Tooth Fairy pulls away from Reba's touch. And finally, you feel genuinely disturbed when you see the Fairy watching a silent video of his potential future victims while an unknowing Reba performs oral sex on him.
The relationship between Fiennes's and Watson's characters is not for the faint of heart. Instead of expanding on this wonderful subplot, Ratner and Tally decided to play it safe and give us a remake of Silence of the Lambs.
The people behind Red Dragon have overcompensated for the buckets of brains and blood shown to us in Hannibal by making a weak-willed horror film for those with weak stomachs. In attempting to please the "free range rude," by softening up what was a grim set of films, Ratner and Tally may well lose half of the fans that made the Hannibal movies hits in the first place. Rather than a worthy successor -- or predecessor -- to the other films in the series, the soft-serve Red Dragon feels like a sweeps week episode of CSI, featuring special guest star, Hannibal Lecter.
Hannibal Lecter is too clever a character to go out on such a dumbed down note. I'd like to see another movie with Lecter - this one forgetting about the tired conventions. This one featuring someone adventurous behind the keyboard and someone bold behind the camera. You give me a good film; I'll give you a great review. Quid pro quo, Hollywood ... Quid pro quo.
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Text ©(Copyright) 2002 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].
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