A review of “Red Dragon” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: R for violence, gory images, nudity and sexuality

Run Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

 

 

I can’t remember the last time I dragged such a truckload of baggage to a film screening.  I’ve read Thomas Harris’ first novel of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy (“Red Dragon”) twice, seriously admiring its grisly sense of style and detailed attention to criminal forensics.  I’ve seen the movie based on that book (Michael Mann’s “Manhunter”, 1986) multiple times, and can think of no earthly reason to remake an excellent example of film noir other than the calculating ka-ching of box office dollars.

With a wink and a nudge to its cinematic predecessors (“Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”), “Dragon” aims to please a demographic that thirsts for an Anthony Hopkins-as-Hannibal encore.  Hopkins as the urbane psychopath does not disappoint, but his movie is gratuitously violent and borderline flat.

          Edward Norton plays ex-FBI agent Will Graham, a Florida-retired husband and father who reluctantly agrees to shake off his mothballs to help the Bureau with a tricky pair of ghastly family murders. The investigation ultimately leads Graham to seek help from his old nemesis, imprisoned psychological forensics expert Hannibal Lecter.  Graham is understandably averse to dealing with the criminally insane Lecter, as he nearly died at the good Dr.’s hands several years earlier.

          Professional curiosity overcomes personal uncertainty, and Will is in the thick of it.  The murder suspect is dubbed The Tooth Fairy, for the startling bite marks he leaves covering his victims’ skin. While Graham plays earnest clue-collector, the emotionally deranged Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) persists with his dirty work.  A series of awkward transitions - introducing Dolarhyde’s kinky obsessions (with visionary artist/writer William Blake), his sexual fantasies (well-endowed moms) and his unfortunate childhood (at the hands of a melodramatically abusive grandmother) - attempt to clarify the killer’s wicked, wicked ways.

Campy opening sequence pitting Lecter against Graham heightens expectations, but “Dragon” is uncommonly conventional considering its source material.  The current popularity (and overexposure) of fine-tuned forensics (TV’s “C.S.I.”, “C.S.I. Miami”, etc.) render detailed evidence treasure-hunts dull ordinary and repetitive.  Garden-variety tension is amped up with spooky jumps and claustrophobic close-ups.

It’s always a pleasure to watch Norton onscreen, and he holds his own against Hopkins with engaging calm. Fiennes is sorely miscast as the monstrous freak who’s neither freaky nor frightening.  Emily Watson as a Fiennes love interest and Harvey Keitel as unruffled company man Jack Crawford do little to inject essential energy. Only co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a low-life tabloid reporter, brings some life to the party.

Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is lush, Danny Elfman’s score is predictably eerie, and the blood-and-guts gang will revel in the gore.  But the tired, climactic showdown prompts a longing for the vastly superior “Manhunter”, and an uneasy sense that “Dragon” is merely a superfluous showcase for Hopkins.