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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » October 24, 2002
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Red Dragon
October 24, 2002 By Jonathan Walsh   
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Long before Silence of the Lambs first hit the screen in 1992, and Hannibal Lecter became one of the most unlikely cultural icons of modern times, Michael Mann's Manhunter- based on Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon and the prequel to Lambs- had established itself as a cult classic. The movie possessed neither the star-studded cast nor the hefty budget of Red Dragon, yet it's a tough act to follow; as well as being among the most quietly unsettling movies of the '80s, Manhunter was one of the decade's most comprehensively stylized; the modernist structures chosen by Mann for both the assylum in which Lecter is incarcerated, and the home of his nemesis, Detective Will Graham, gave the movie a cold, clinical feel, completely at odds with the gothic gloom of the new movie.

Where Manhunter had not a single genuine star, Red Dragon is steeped in them- Edward Norton, Hopkins, Ralph Feinnes and Harvey Keitel- a payroll so enormous that there was apparently nothing left in the kitty when it came to hiring a big-name director- Brent Ratner anyone? The man responsible for the Rush Hour movies isn't a complete novice but he sorely lacks the pedigree of a Jonathan Demme or a Ridley Scott.

Ratner's movie is more reminiscent of Demme's than Scott's- indeed, it doesn't take long for the d¨¦jˇŇ vu to set in. When Norton goes to interview Lecter at the asylum, he's confronted with that same descent into the dungeon that Jodie Foster hyper-ventilated through a decade ago; you half-expect to find a grinning Mike Myers awaiting him-Hopkins's Lecter has been parodied so many times it's hard to recollect the menace that the character possessed in The Silence of the Lambs. Thankfully, Lecter is a bit player in the movie, the real focus shifting to serial killer Francis Dolarhyde (Feinnes), dubbed the "Tooth Fairy" by sleazy Tattler hack Freddy Lourds (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Dolarhyde, like "Buffalo Bill" from Lambs, is a killer driven by the need to transform himself; an abused, physically deformed child, his desire to establish himself as a figure of power has about it the same morbidly pathetic air that runs through the biographies of real-life killers- it's what makes him so much more disturbing than the impossible figure of Lecter. The movie works best when examining the "human" side of Dolarhyde; the introduction of Emily Watson as blind co-worker Reba McClane sees the killer offered the chance to forge a real relationship, a hope of redemption almost tragically impossible in the light of his former crimes.

While Fiennes is convincing enough as the killer, Norton is mis-cast here- he's simply too young for the role, coming across as more of a whiz-kid detective than someone with access to the same demons as the men he pursues. Keitel, Watson and Hoffman, meanwhile, do as well as you'd expect- though it would have been nice to see arch scene-stealer Hoffman given more to do- but with so many recognizable faces the movie feels more than a little over-crowded.

It all looks different enough from Manhunter not to feel like a pointless replica- remarkably, the cinematographer for both films was the Italian maestro Dante Spinotti- but though its closer to the novel, Dragon takes far fewer risks. And in terms of its standing within the Lecter trilogy- well, first is last.
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