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An unexpectedly solid prequel to "The Silence of the Lambs"
on 5 April 2003
The key thing about watching "Red Dragon" is to realize that this is not a Hannibal Lecter story. The character was a compelling but relatively minor figure in both the Thomas Harris novel and "Manhunter," the original cinematic adaptation by Michael Mann. Obviously screenwriter Ted Tally and director Brett Ratner have enhanced the role for this 2002 film, but Anthony Hopkins's part is not a central part of the story. Once you understand that you will discover that "Red Dragon" exceeds your expectations. But if you cannot get around this idea then you are probably going to be bitterly disappointed with this film.
Clearly a major strength of this film is the stellar caste, which in addition to Hopkins has Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald, and Mary Beth Hurt (add to the list Ellen Burstyn as the voice of Grandma Dolarhyde). But what makes this film work is its intelligence, for which Harris and Tally get the credit. Will Graham is an intelligent man, an F.B.I. profiler who constantly shows throughout this story that he has a gift for saying the right thing, whether he is talking to Lecter, a room full of police officers, the head of a company, or the Red Dragon himself. Yes, he has been scarred psychologically as well as physically by his capture of Lecter, but it is not an incapacitating condition as was the case with Clarice Starling. In "Silence of the Lambs" the climax of the film involved a cinematic commonplace that has always enraged me, when a law enforcement officer has a gun drawn and aimed at a suspect who then manages to get away. I thought the climax of "The Red Dragon" involved an exhilarating series of intelligent, brilliant moves by the good guys.
The other aspect of this story that makes it compelling is that the villain is a monster with a soul. The idea of a serial killer falling in love, struggling to thwart the demonic voices and try to stop his descent into hell is brilliant. The circle becomes complete when you notice that all of the main characters in this film are complex; granted, not as complex as the Red Dragon, but enough that the actors reading this script would be drawn to the parts. But the ability of the villain to be surprising is critical because usually in the final analysis it is the villain that makes the film. Again, this underscores the fact that Lecter is not the villain of the piece. But he was in "Hannibal," and look how well that film was received. Here we are back to the pivotal idea that even when this character is bound and gagged in a cell he is still capable of killing you.
Ultimately Hannibal Lecter remains the problematic element in the film; more often that not his scenes are suggestive if not outright reminiscent of scenes from "Silence of the Lambs." One of the obvious questions that springs to mind is whether Hopkins's Lecter would have made as big of an impact if "Red Dragon" had indeed been the first of the reconstituted trilogy. Ultimately the answer has to be "no," but because this is clearly a prequel made fully cognizant of the film that comes after it. To appreciate how difficult this is to pull off look at other recent prequels such as "Gods and Generals" and either of the two Star Wars films. The argument here is not that "The Red Dragon" is a better film than "The Silence of the Lambs," but that it is a worthy successor to that classic film, even if it takes place first.
Final Note: The commentary track with Ratner and Tally is well worth a second viewing of the film, more so in terms of tidbits about the production than analytical insights into the adaptation. The rest of the DVD extras are at least average, but the commentary is the big attraction here.