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Doctor's Orders

 

Manhunter

Michael Mann, USA, 1986

Rating: 4.0

   

Red Dragon

Brett Ratner, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.5

Posted: October 6, 2002

By Laurence Station

In the opening scene of Manhunter, Michael (The Insider) Mann's 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, we see through the eyes of a serial killer moving through the home of his soon-to-be victims, a moment of effective tension; who wouldn't be scared by the idea of waking up to a stranger in your bedroom? By contrast, Brett (Rush Hour, The Family Man) Ratner's Red Dragon begins (and cheerlessly ends) with Hannibal Lecter, and only reluctantly ever leaves his side to attend to its other characters and its central plot. The temptation is easy to understand -- after all, thanks to Jonathan Demme's 1991 Oscar-winner The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is easily the most beloved serial-murdering cannibal in the history of popular culture (thanks in no small part to the Grand Guignol panache the distinguished Anthony Hopkins brought to the role), and the film franchise that's grown around him owes its profitable existence to that fact. But the issue remains that Red Dragon, Harris' first novel featuring Lecter, was not a story about Lecter, per se. Ratner's Red Dragon, unfortunately, is about almost nothing else but Hannibal and his chessboard-like manipulations of the other characters, moving hunter and prey around the board like Zeus casting good and ill fortune upon the heroic Argonauts. Since the phenomenal box office and critical success of Lambs, the not-so good Dr. Lecter has become bigger than the plot of the subsequent films (Ridley Scott's execrable 2001 sequel Hannibal and Ratner's new entry), looming over both with garish, unwelcome ubiquity.

The obvious problem with elevating Lecter from his minor presence in Manhunter, at least in terms of screen time, to the focal point of Dragon is that it detracts from the actual plot involving FBI profiler Will Graham and his hunt for a psychotic killer named Francis Dolarhyde. Lecter's background role in Manhunter was far more effective for the psychological weight his very existence exerted on both Graham and Dolarhyde. By shifting the emphasis from the hunt for a deranged maniac to a caged, behind-the-scenes manipulator, Ratner lessens the importance of the chase.

Mann's film understood the importance of the hunt, and indeed made it the focal point of Manhunter. More, it centered on the mental well being of Graham (capably acted by a pre-CSI William Petersen), who'd retired after bringing Lecter to justice -- a takedown that nearly cost Graham his life and his sanity. Coaxed back into field work by his former boss (Dennis Farina), Graham spent the rest of the film inexorably plunged into a nightmare world he (and especially his wife) had hoped he'd seen the last of.

In short, it focused on Graham's fight for his sanity, even as Dolarhyde (a menacing but oddly sympathetic Tom Noonan) surrendered the last shreds of his. Manhunter turned on the axis of the two characters, with Lecter -- spelled Lecktor in the movie and wonderfully handled by an understated, quietly creepy Brian Cox -- now acting as an advisor to Graham, much as he would for Clarice Starling in Lambs; serving as an important pivot point, a way into Dolarhyde's world. The inevitable showdown between Graham and Dolarhyde depicts Graham confronting the dark side of his own soul -- the part that secretly empathizes with men like Lecter and Dollarhyde, inhuman creatures who can dispense with moral restrictions and play God if they so desire. That battle for Graham's soul is the soul of Manhunter, and proves far more fascinating than the machinations of a bored middle-aged man, sitting in a cell and offering clever quips about people's choice in cologne and the taste of fine wines.

Which, of course, is the entire point of Ratner's artless, contrived entry in the cash cow the Lecter films have become. Hopkins, now playing a mere parody of the character he so chillingly made famous in Lambs, dominates Red Dragon to the point that the actual hunt for Dolarhyde (ferociously well-played by the great Ralph Fiennes) is reduced to a mere sideshow. Even more distressing is the loss of insight into Graham's troubled psyche. Edward Norton is a fine actor, but he's simply too innocent- and young-looking to believably impart any sense of his emotional struggle, nor any that Graham nearly died at the hands of Lecter (though the entire incident is staged here, and only referred to in Manhunter). As written, Graham fears that he may be a little too closely attuned to the mad Doctor's way of thinking for his -- or his family's -- own good. Petersen's Graham bordered on obsession to the point of lunacy. As played by Norton, Graham simply seems tired, as if the entire hunt for Dolarhyde, with or without Lecter's annoying Sphinx-like insights, is taking him away from a really well-deserved nap.

Compounding its flaws, Red Dragon is too obvious throughout, with dramatic chords emphasizing sudden breakthroughs in the case, and Ratner overdoing the sight of a bloody crime scene, as opposed to Manhunter's subtle reliance on actors' expressions and small gestures to adroitly relate how the pieces of the case gradually fall into place. Where Mann uses delicate brush strokes, Ratner smashes with a blunt hammer. And while Manhunter's cheesy synthesized drone hasn't aged well, Danny Elfman's absolutely over the top score in Red Dragon is simply inappropriate, humorously melodramatic and -- worst of all -- mood-breaking, overwhelming the action rather than reinforcing it.

One point in Red Dragon's favor is that it sticks far closer to Thomas Harris' book than Manhunter; Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, admittedly took what he felt were the essential elements of the novel and chose to concentrate on them exclusively, at the expense of fleshing out Dolarhyde's twisted motivations. Red Dragon does a solid job revealing Dolarhyde's abusive, Psycho-worthy grandmother and rationale behind embodying Book 12 of Revelations, as envisioned by artist William Blake and his famous rendering The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun.

But while Manhunter takes liberties with Harris' source material, it enjoys the vision of a talented director and suffers no distractions in the form of fashionable serial killers who spout banal, audience-baiting one-liners. Clean, clear and efficient, it's far and away the superior of the two adaptations, while the current incarnation will have to console itself with the guarantee that it will take in more money in a single day than Manhunter did during its entire theatrical release. Which has to count for something -- at least where the bottom line, as opposed to artistic license, is concerned.

 
Dino-tap
It took awhile but producer Dino de Laurentiis has finally realized a return on the investment he made in Harris' book way back in the early '80s. Manhunter proved a financial dud for the Italian deal-maker, but Red Dragon should more than make up for the (relatively) short-term loss.
Back for Seconds
Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for Silence of the Lambs, also pens Red Dragon, while Dante Spinotti, who photographed the Mann original, frames Dragon as well
.

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