Review: “Red Dragon”

A major improvement on “Hannibal”, this second adaptation of Thomas Harris’ first novel about everyone’s favourite serial killer turned imprisoned advisor is a solidly made and engaging thriller – even if Brett Ratner’s directing and style tends more to formula than it should.

“The Silence of the Lambs” worked as a thriller (and one of my personal Top Five films ever made) as every element of it worked – the acting, the script, the story, etc. all combined beautifully thanks to Jonathan Demme’s skilled hand to create a masterpiece where every scene dripped with atmosphere and looked as rich as an oil painting.

Ratner is certainly a competent director and understands pacing, story needs and character with this easily being his best film yet. Indeed, Harris’ story is arguably his best with us getting to understand killer Francis Dolarhyde a LOT more than say Jamie Gumb in ‘Silence’, whilst the beefing up of Lecter’s scenes are a major plus and welcome addition to the story rather than being just for show as you might suspect.

Still, look at a film like “Queen of the Damned” – even if it had the best script and cast in the world, Michael Rhymer’s directing style made it feel a lot more robotic and empty than Neil Jordan’s exquisite visuals in “Interview with the Vampire” which utterly dripped with an eerie darkness. “Red Dragon” feels like that compared to ‘Silence’, a flatter and more by the numbers tale which lacks the sheer energy and life the 1991 Oscar Winner had – its a filmmaking quality which one doesn’t learn in film school, only some directors truly have it and Ratner has yet to figure out his.

Compare the first meeting of Clarice and Hannibal in the institute with the first visit by Will to see Lecter in the same place – every word and inflection in the former was important and filled with menace or controlled fear, in the latter the pair just talk calmly and with little visible display of emotion. That’s not to put this down – “Red Dragon” works superbly for the most part and whilst there is a lot of love for the first adaptation – Michael Mann’s “Manhunter”, it hasn’t dated well sadly even if stars William Petersen & Tom Noonan give better performances than Norton & Fiennes respectively.

The roles here are solid though, Hopkins decides to re-inject menace into his character which whilst is still a little over the top, but comes across as someone a lot darker than the character was in “Hannibal”. When the humour flows its with a more effective tone such as his word-sparring with the always welcome Anthony Heald as Dr. Chilton – the duo’s arguments and barbs prove the film’s highlight.

Emily Watson yet again shows how strong an actress she is and makes it easy to fall for her as the blind but assertive Vera, and as much as I hate the fact they recast Jack Crawford, Harvey Keitel does manage to give one of his best and most relaxed performances on-screen in a long while. Fiennes has his moments alright, but the creepiness is never fully convincing. Finally comes Norton who always is a good performer, but portraying the young actor as a retired veteran cop is a central concept that’s about as believable as Nicole Kidman as a brain surgeon in “Days of Thunder”.

Another welcome addition is the little hints at ‘Silence’, the production design utilising the same superb underground cell set, whilst the Dolarhyde mansion is an excellent and creepy location. Danny Elfman gives us an effective if somewhat forgettable score, whilst Ted Tally once again delivers a well put together script.

The additions to the story such as the Hannibal capture scene and the opening credits give the film its few moments of life, but otherwise much like the first “Harry Potter” this almost sticks too closely to the book without having a life on its own. As much as I love the little ‘Silence’ hints such as the ending, “Red Dragon” can’t help but feel like a sibling struggling to keep up with their over achieving brother, and indeed ‘Dragon’ is designed in a way that if you haven’t watched “Silence” first a lot of the impact is lost. Solidly made and worth seeing on the big screen, but not a film to rush back out for repeat viewings of.