You don't have to be a cannibal with impeccable taste to salivate over the cast assembled for this Silence of the Lambs prequel and Manhunter remake. In what sounds like the line-up for a Robert Altman film (or, these days, a P.T. Anderson one), Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Mary-Louise Parker, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Edward Norton join mainstay Anthony Hopkins for this entertaining dip into the mind of yet another diabolical serial killer.
Giving an early clue where it falls on the timeline of Harris' adaptations, the amusing second sequence of the film rightly places Red Dragon comfortably below Jonathan Demme's awe-inspiring Oscar winner (Silence of the Lambs) and Ridley Scott's abysmal sequel (Hannibal). As Hopkins' Dr. Lechter hosts the top members of the Baltimore orchestra at his posh brownstone, the topic inadvertently turns to both the excellent food and the sad disappearance of the company's kind, but untalented, flautist. The joke is all too familiar, but it's played well enough that it's not as irksome as it probably should be by now.
Largely, Red Dragon traverses territory like that-the familiar eccentricities of the psychotic, brilliant, and cultured Hannibal Lechter-and places a talented male detective in the shoes of Clarice Starling. Here, the psycho-at-large is a fellow tagged "The Tooth Fairy" by the media and, aside from his dental issues, is fascinated by a mythological figure known as the Red Dragon who draws power from consuming others.
Thankfully, Lechter is caged here as he was in Silence. Bantering back and forth with Norton's retired and jaded agent as he did with eager, young Clarice, the thrill that was absent in Hannibal is partially returned here. That said, it still ain't the same. As Norton and Hopkins exchange barbs and witticisms, the desire to see the old Hopkins chatting it up with a pensive, redheaded Jody Foster never quite dissipates. While Norton is fine as the lead dick Will Graham, his role doesn't allow for the sexual tension that was played to such perfection in Silence. More problematically, Hopkins turns Lechter into more caricature than character, if only because he can't seem to find a way to make this tired act new again.
While the Lechter-Graham relationship leaves something to be desired, Ralph Fiennes picks up much of the slack as the lecherous killer. Caught somewhere between a disfigured ogre (his character has a lip cleft and is lacking his set of top teeth) and a chiseled Adonis, it's impossible to keep your eyes or your mind off Fiennes' disturbed and disturbing maniac. Tattooed over much of his body, Fiennes lights up the screen with his horrifying, yet tortured stare and his painstaking speech, altered by the fake choppers stuck in his mouth. And, as his poorly-drawn savior, Emily Watson is equally laudable for turning a tritely crafted victim (she's both blind and achingly sweet) into a compelling, layered character.
Delighting in the joy of the chase, Red Dragon does a fine job of building up its mystery and then cracking it. But, looming in the shadow of the inimitable Silence of the Lambs, this go-round doesn't have the juice to stand completely on its own and separate itself from its stronger, earlier counterpart.
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