After the success of "The Silence of the Lambs", it took almost ten years for its sequel "Hannibal" to bow into theaters as a result of Thomas Harris' delay in completing the novel. And though "Hannibal" received a critical drubbing, it devoured the competition with an impressive box office and made a follow-up inevitable. However, given that it would probably be another few years before Harris could come up with another novel to continue the adventures of Hannnibal Lecter, producer Dino De Laurentiis had to find some other way to keep the franchise alive.
As a result, attention turned to Harris' first Lecter novel, "Red Dragon", which was written in 1981 and previously filmed by Michael Mann ("Ali") in 1986 as "Manhunter", which starred William L. Petersen and Brian Cox. Thus, the 'Hannibal Lecter Trilogy' with Anthony Hopkins as the titular character is now complete, with a new film adaptation of "Red Dragon" in theaters. And though the prospect of "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner at the helm might raise some concern, fortunately, such fears are unfounded. In addition to turning in a solid prequel to "The Silence of Lambs", Ratner also makes a serial killer chiller that is superior to the disappointing and anti-climactic "Hannibal".
"Red Dragon" begins in Baltimore in 1980 with the capture of noted psychologist Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), who frequently consults to the FBI for psychological profiles. The agent who captures him, Will Graham (Edward Norton of "The Score"), suffers some serious wounds during the arrest and ends up retiring to a peaceful life in Florida with his wife Molly (Mary Louise Parker, seen recently on TV's "The West Wing") and son Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones of "Minority Report"). Several years later, Graham is called out of retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel of "U-571") to consult on the 'Tooth Fairy' murders, which have so far claimed the lives of two families. Unfortunately, the person who would have the best experience in unravelling the possible identity of the 'Tooth Fairy' is Lecter, requiring Graham to face his nemesis and request his help.
Meanwhile, the man behind the murders, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes of "The Avengers"), quietly goes about his unassuming work at a film processing facility. Haunted by the abuse he suffered at the hands of his late grandmother, Dolarhyde is compelled by his psychosis to kill again, and his next victim may very well be his pretty but blind co-worker, Reba McClane (Emily Watson, seen recently in "Gosford Park"), whom he is slowly developing a romantic attachment to.
When I first heard Ratner was taking directing duties for "Red Dragon", my expectations for the finished film were greatly reduced. Though Ratner was the filmmaker behind the quaint and Capra-esque "The Family Man", he was also the man who wasted Jackie Chan's talents in "Rush Hour" and "Rush Hour 2". Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised with what Ratner was able to accomplish in this latest film. The film's execution is stylish, and it is clear that Ratner knows a thing or two about creating tension, such as the scenes depicting Graham's investigations in the abandoned houses of the murder victims, or in the developing romance between Dolarhyde and McClane. Though he may not be as accomplished as his predecessors, Jonathan Demme or Ridley Scott, the work he does here is sound.
Of course, the biggest draw of "Red Dragon" is to once again see Hopkins step into the shoes of the cultured, intelligent, witty, and ultimately depraved Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter. Thankfully, Hopkins is in top form and does not disappoint. Given that this film takes place before "The Silence of the Lambs", Hopkins plays Lecter as a more youthful, volatile, and vindictive villain. As his counterpoint, Norton is credible as a determined FBI agent trying to overcome both the demons of the real world, and those that haunt his psyche. Fiennes also does good work as the conflicted and mentally ill Dolarhyde without going over-the-top, as does Watson in her turn as the only person who may be able to salvage Dolarhyde's last vestiges of humanity. Among the supporting roles, the always reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as the unscrupulous tabloid reporter following the 'Tooth Fairy' murders, Parker is given little to do as Graham's wife, while Keitel is passable, though not particularly noteworthy.
Here is a book that you cannot judge by its cover. Though it was conceived purely as a means to sustain a red-hot film franchise and director Ratner has few 'serious' credits to his name, overall, "Red Dragon" is a very good thriller and a pleasant surprise. Mind you, if you are already familiar with 1986's "Manhunter", much of what happens in "Red Dragon" will not be news, though the story does take a few different detours and Hopkins does his usual chilling portrayal of Hannibal Lecter (plus, no thin ties, feathered hair, or heavy synthesizer music in the background). And for those unfamiliar with "Manhunter", the recent DVD re-release is an excellent companion piece to viewing "Red Dragon", as British thespian Brian Cox is rather good with his interpretation of Lecter, while William L. Peterson gets a pre-"C.S.I." forensics warm-up.