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Red Dragon makes one appreciate Silence of the Lambs. I don't mean that in a negative way.
It's just that Red Dragon is a much simpler version of 1991 film in many ways. It strips away deeper subtext (Clarice Starling's deeper journey for self-understanding and acceptance, epitomized by the pull that Hannibal Lecter exuded on her), and opts to concentrate on the story proper. In a way, the two films are complimentary of one another.
It helps that in this film, the FBI agent on the nervous side of Lecter's glass cage is Will Graham (Edward Norton), a sleuth with experience and discomforting talent: an affinity with the mind of the serial killer. He's the man who put Lecter behind bars (which we actually get to see courtesy the opening flashback), and the situation (which was particularly unpleasant - but dealing with Lecter usually is) has left him a retired consultant in Florida.
Of course, some wacky nutjob's gotta be brutally massacring families, and Graham is the only person capable of bringing him down. Originally just in as a consultant, he gets drawn in further and further. At the encouragement of his superior (Harvey Keitel), he consults Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who decides it would be fun to play both sides.
Ratner, perhaps realizing that he wasn't as advanced as Jonathan Demme was when he handled Silence, chooses to handle Red Dragon as an exercise in pure thrills. Surprisingly, this veteran of Chris Tucker vehicles and the odious Family Man handles the task with aplomb that usually comes with many more years in the Hollywood trenches.
His pacing is near-perfect, his handling of his actors superb. The look of the film, especially the world of killer Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) is cohesive and eye-catching. The film revels in shadows, and it works. This is a director who (and I would not have said this in a million years previously) is going places, if he continues to pick the right scripts.
And trust me, Red Dragon is under the category of "The Right Script." Handled by Silence scribe Ted Tally, it has the same feel as his previous trip down Lecter Lane, while still maintaining an inherent intelligence of its own. The explorations into the mind of Dolarhyde (while most likely taken straight from the book) are nicely rendered, as is Graham's investigation.
Thankfully, he chooses to set the film at an indeterminate time, so it's status as a prequel to Silence is plausible, but the movie doesn't get bogged down in bizarre 80s nostalgia. If you want that, go rent Manhunter (an excellent film that is nearly on par with this effort, and handles Dolarhyde's story a bit better).
Red Dragon also proves why Hannibal Lecter is much better confined. Although the opening, in which he is free, has a nice ring of the underrated Hannibal to it, the scenes behind the glass are good for the same reasons that they were good in Silence. This is little more than a very smart caged animal, and there's the ever-present feeling that if that transparent barrier were ever removed, you'd be Filet of Audience Member, with a side of lightly whipped Projectionist. In the open, he's a happy-go-lucky guy with a knife and a few pet peeves.
Quick note to Danny Elfman: Great score. Keep it up, and we may yet forgive the fact that Spider-Man had no distinctive hero's theme.
Norton, as the troubled protagonist, is an excellent actor, even if this part isn't quite right for his considerable talent. He comes off as a bit too young, a bit too wet-behind-the-ears. Maybe it was the dyed blonde hair, or maybe he just didn't look tired enough (although he does carry the hangdog look of an insomniac with him throughout the movie). However, he carries the burden admirably, even if you never forget you're watching the guy from Fight Club.
Fiennes is also good (where has this guy been hiding himself lately?). This is a man who defines internalizing the character. I'd be a little afraid to bump into as he's going home from shooting. His quest for redemption by the love of a blind woman (Emily Watson) is touching and a little freaky at the same time.
Of course, everybody wants to know about Anthony Hopkins. Yes, he hams it up again, and yet again that blatant overacting is delightful to watch. This is a man who's laughing blackly all the way to the bank. Bravo, Tony.
Can there be a greater character actor than Phillip Seymour Hoffman? As unethical tabloid sleazeball Freddy Lounds, he oozes across the screen, crying out to the world what an utter cretin he is. He looks unwashed, both in his body and soul, and he's one of the better characterizations in the film, however brief.
Are there problems? Sure. Some of the editing choices were a bit abrupt. There were some minor dramatic balancing issues in Dolarhyde's story. I could have done without the double-ending structure of the last act, even though the result's thrilling execution made it worthwhile.
On the whole, though, Red Dragon is a film you're going to want to check out. Ratner's more than proven himself with this entry in a series that's boasted some pretty impressive names behind the camera (Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott). Then, watch Silence of the Lambs afterwards. I guarantee it'll make a great double feature.