The character of Hannibal Lector has been ingrained in public consciousness over the course of five films. The Silence of the Lambs (technically the second film starring the character) won Oscars and firmly established it’s lead actors as bankable stars. It’s follow-up, Ridley Scott’s dreadful Hannibal almost killed any further films dead, but a year later Brett Ratner stepped in to finish the trilogy by adapting the Thomas Harris book Red Dragon. The fact that it had already been adapted in Michael Mann’s Manhunter did not, unsurprisingly stop the studios from churning out another adaptation. What is surprising is how good the film is.
A prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon follows a young FBI agent called Will Graham (Edward Norton) who is working with the brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) to catch a serial killer and potential cannibal. Upon discovering evidence linking Lector to the crimes, the two men fight each other and Graham captures Lector leading to him being sentenced to life imprisonment and Graham to retire. Years later a new serial killer, simply called ‘The Tooth Fairy’ goes on a spree, which draws Graham out of retirement and forces him to once again interact with Lector.
Director Brett Ratner, a man not known for the quality of his film actually creates a rather thrilling, if workmanlike film in Red Dragon. There’s none of the tension from the original, but his at least is paced correctly and with the cast he assembled has an air of gravitas missing from Hannibal. Norton and Hopkins are perfect foils for each other, giving the audience a clearly defined hero and villain to root for and against, while a supporting cast including Harvey Keitel, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman all lend credibility to the action.
Anthony Hopkins is back on form as Lector, replacing the grand-standing lines of dialogue from Hannibal with the more witty and intelligent class of The Silence of the Lambs, yet he is upstaged by Fiennes, who manages to create an almost sympathetic monster in the form of Francis Dolarhyde. Had Red Dragon not been wrapped up in the mythology of the most famous and effective serial killers ever put on screen then Fiennes may well have created a character who would have got his own spin-offs, sadly he is ever so subtly outperformed by the chianti-drnking, fava bean chewing Doctor.
Much, much better than Hannibal, but with none of the directorial flair of The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon is an effective, if by-the-numbers thriller. It is dragged above complete mediocrity by the stellar cast and offers Hopkins’ Lector a decent send-off, even if it is technically a prequel.