It took a full decade to manage a sequel to 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” largely because filmmakers had to wait for Thomas Harris, a notorious perfectionist, to produce a followup to his book. The result was “Hannibal,” which was quickly rushed into production and emerged last year as a smash despite a critical drubbing. People still loved Hannibal Lecter, and lined up in droves to watch Anthony Hopkins camp it up in the role. It’s not surprising that the producers wanted to continue the series, or that they could hardly give Harris another decade to come up with a basis for it. So they decided to do what was in effect a prequel–an adaptation of the author’s 1981 novel, in which Lecter had been introduced in a supporting role. The only problem was that “Red Dragon” had already been made into a quite good film by Michael Mann in 1986, with an excellent cast that included William Petersen (now of “C.S.I.”) as ex-FBI agent Will Graham and unheralded Brian Cox as a nicely creepy Hannibal. Fortunately in that case the name had been changed to “Manhunter,” and for some reason relatively few people went to see it. So while this new version is essentially a remake of a picture only a decade and a half old, many moviegoers won’t have seen its predecessor, or, if they did, perhaps even realize “Red Dragon” is the same story.
Fortunately the complicated genealogy probably won’t matter to most viewers, because Brett Ratner’s version of “Red Dragon” proves a nicely executed, reasonably faithful adaptation of a book that is a worthy complement to “Lambs” (as the third volume, unfortunately, was not). It’s just about as chilling and unsettling as “Manhunter” was, and though it can’t recapture the sense of newness that “Lambs” provided and its serial-killer plot has become rather ordinary after a passage of twenty years, it’s far superior to the grisly, silly “Hannibal.” That comes as rather a surprise, considering Ratner’s participation. Absolutely nothing in the helmer’s past pictures– “Money Talks,” “The Family Man” and the two “Rush Hour” films–suggested that he had a taste for the macabre or the skill to pull off such a dark and disturbing piece of work. Its grim, shadowy appearance (courtesy of DP Dante Spinotti) is a better fit for the material than Mann’s preferred gleaming, antiseptic look was, and Danny Elfman’s score is, if conventional and a mite overwhelming at points, a major plus, creating a strong sense of menace and tension.
Ratner has the good fortune, of course, to be working from not only a fine original, but an expert adaptation by Ted Tally (who also scripted “Lambs”); Tally follows the book’s basic structure, but he rearranges some matters to good effect (the killer’s background is scattered throughout in eerie flashbacks, instead of being presented in the rather dull lump that Harris used–and the result makes Francis Dolarhyde seem more than ever a kindred spirit with Norman Bates) and, of course, he updates things when necessary (substituting video tapes for the now-extinct home movies, for instance).
And for good measure the picture gives Hopkins one more chance to sink his teeth into a role that he clearly relishes, and that audiences love to see him smack his lips over. (He’s clearly made the part his signature piece, as good as Cox was.) In the novel, Lecter is a minor character–scary, to be sure, but present only rarely; Tally has fattened up the role, adding a juicy prelude, some additional conversations and nice bon mots (a clever remark is obligatory at the end, of course, though the one here doesn’t match that in “Lambs”) and a few florid scenes (most notably a walk around an exercise yard and a catered dinner); and Hopkins takes advantage of all the new opportunities.
The picture’s wider cast outdoes Mann’s film in star power, if not always in effect. As Graham Edward Norton is less mannered than Petersen was, but also less distinctive; he brings a boyish earnestness to the part, but doesn’t make nearly as much of it as one might have expected of an actor of his stature. Harvey Keitel is a commanding presence as his superior Jack Crawford (better than Dennis Farina in Mann’s version), and Ralph Fiennes is subtler, though perhaps not quite so frightening, as Tom Noonan was as Dolarhyde, the serial killer whom Graham hunts down with Lecter’s dubious assistance. Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman replace Joan Allen, Kim Greist and Stephen Lang, and all do fine work. In truth, however, Mann’s version was fairly strong across the board, too. Anthony Heald, wearing a terrible wig designed to make him look younger, repeats his prissy “Lambs” turn as Dr. Chilton–the object of the last delicious line of dialogue in Jonathan Demme’s picture.
“Red Dragon” impresses as a skillfully assembled, highly polished and professional adaptation of Harris’ book. It’s not superior to “Manhunter,” however–indeed, in some ways the earlier film was more interesting–and while it avoids the campy quality of “Hannibal,” it doesn’t approach the terrifying punch of “The Silence of the Lambs.” What most viewers will want, though, is simply another helping of Hopkins’ Lecter, and Ratner’s picture serves that up elegantly.