As the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon has a lot of obstacles to overcome. Stuck in the shadow of a genre-defining crime thriller that is so acclaimed by fans and critics alike, many dismiss it simply by saying, "it's not as good." But let's keep things in perspective: The Silence of the Lambs had its share of flaws, many of which are remedied in Red Dragon. The fact that this prequel is an attempt to cash in on a lucrative franchise doesn't preclude it from being a well done film in its own right. In the final analysis, these first two chapters in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy are both good movies for different reasons.
Red Dragon opens with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) enjoying life as a socialite, attending the symphony and throwing dinner parties for snobs. A brilliant forensic psychologist, he occasionally assists FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) in profiling criminals. But when Graham's investigation into a string of cannibalistic murders leads him to suspect Lecter, the doctor quickly turns on his colleague. Graham is nearly killed in the subsequent fight, but he is ultimately able to subdue Lecter. Though the encounter results in the doctor's imprisonment, Graham is left as a scarred shell of a man who resigns from the bureau to peacefully live with his wife and son in Florida.
Years later, a grisly series of murders has the FBI stumped. The perpetrator, dubbed "the Tooth Fairy" because of his shark-like teeth, has slaughtered two families in their homes. FBI chief Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) asks Graham to assist in the investigation, claiming that his uncanny ability to profile psychopaths could help them catch the Tooth Fairy quickly. Graham reluctantly joins the manhunt, but soon realizes he needs help. He is finally forced to consult with the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter for advice on tracking the killer, thus putting himself in the deadly triangle of consulting one madman to catch another.
One the surface, Ed Norton's Red Dragon character of Will Graham may seem like a remake of Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs: both are young FBI agents who must tap into Lecter's intellect to catch a killer. But the similarities are superficial, as they are opposites in many ways: Graham is a hardened and decorated veteran of the bureau, a broken man who wants out of the profession thanks to his near-fatal encounter with Lecter; Starling, on the other hand, is an eager, idealistic fledgling who, while sharp and intelligent, is more of a plaything to Lecter than an adversary on equal footing. Both characters have unique and interesting relationships with Lecter, and it's good that Red Dragon offers a different perspective rather than rehashing Lambs' psychological song and dance.
Another important distinction between the two films is the villain being profiled. "Buffalo Bill" from The Silence of the Lambs, while probably more gruesome due to his skinning people and wearing their flesh, was ultimately an inbred hillbilly with some funny catch phrases ("it puts the lotion in the basket or it gets the hose again...uurrghh!"). Ralph Fiennes as the so-called Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon is a far stronger presence and more formidable villain for a number of reasons: he believes strongly in his work of ritualistically murdering whole families in their homes, including the children; his obsession with metaphysical transformation approaches religious fanaticism; he admires Hannibal Lecter in a strange way full of disturbing innuendo; he's pumped up, psychotically tattooed, and has a set of choppers like Nosferatu; and there is significant focus on his day job, thus emphasizing the unsettling realization that the meek, quiet guy at work could be a sociopathic basket case.
Fiennes makes a convincing bad guy, no small feat considering that he has to hold his own against the legendary Hannibal Lecter. While his character is, at heart, an insecure weakling who "didn't get enough love as a child," there are enough elements about him to make him imposing and intimidating.
One of Red Dragon's best features is how it returns Lecter to his evil roots. After his rather silly heroics in 2001's Hannibal, he's back to being a true villain: Anthony Hopkins once more portrays him as the dangerous freak in a box that gained such notoriety in Lambs.
Red Dragon also boasts a great ending that, while somewhat textbook in its execution, is nonetheless loaded with suspense and tension. There is also a good sense of continuity in the way this movie is connected to The Silence of the Lambs. Attention has been paid to small details: for example, in both movies, Lecter begins his caged dialogue with their respective FBI agents by discussing his sense of smell. His familiar cell is once again brought to the big screen, and Anthony Heald (Boston Public) reprises his role as Dr. Chilton, the overseer of the facility where Lecter is contained. The final scene of Red Dragon offers a very cool reference to Clarice Starling, bringing us up to the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs. You could watch these two movies back to back and the story would flow continuously without missing a beat.
While Hopkins, Norton, and Fiennes all deliver performances above par, the remaining cast of characters is mixed. As the girl who naively falls for the Tooth Fairy, Emily Watson is humanly flawed, a good trait that makes her realistic--but it's a trait that is occasionally taken too far, depicting her as mindnumbingly clueless at times. Philip Seymour Hoffman is playing yet another dimwitted loser, but at least he gets taken out Night of the Living Dead style. Mary-Louise Parker doesn't get to do much as the film's token wife and mother. And Harvey Keitel, while competent and believable as FBI agent Crawford, has a role that is such a Hollywood cliche that you expect him to complain about "internal affairs busting his balls" or "his field agents destroying half a city block." His portrayal of Jack Crawford also seems worlds apart from that of Scott Glenn in The Silence of the Lambs, so much so that they seem like entirely different characters.
Red Dragon has a few mechanical flaws that can be overlooked without much difficulty: the music gets unnecessarily dramatic at times instead of letting the adequate visuals speak for themselves (although it doesn't constantly overwhelm scenes as the obnoxious score did in Lambs); Graham talks to himself too much, a rather uninspired way of relating his deductive thinking to the audience; and finally, there's a certain lack of originality in this well-polished chapter of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, one that The Silence of the Lambs didn't really have to contend with back in 1991. Also hurting its shot at originality is the fact that the story, originally penned by novelist Thomas Harris, was already adapted as the 1986 sans-Hopkins film Manhunter.
Because of its timing and formulaic nature, Red Dragon may not be the breakthrough film that its acclaimed predecessor was. But it's still a solid, entertaining crime thriller with some great performances and a good deal of suspense. And for all the Hannibal Lecter fans out there, it's a real treat to see our fava bean-eating, nice Chianti-sipping psychopath back in all his glorious villainy.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)