As I wrote in my Manhunter review, that film was only the first of three different adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon. Although Manhunter spent a long time as a semi-forgotten also-ran, I’m guessing that producer Dino De Laurentiis knew that he had failed to strike while the iron was hot by letting ten years pass between the releases of Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and he knew he needed to get Red Dragon into theaters before said metaphorical iron was ice cold. Coming out a mere 20 months after Hannibal, Red Dragon opens with the scene we only heard described in Manhunter: Will Graham (here played by Ed Norton), after seeking help from notable psychologist Hannibal Lecter (still Anthony Hopkins) in finding the so-called Chesapeake Ripper, suddenly realizes that the serial killer whom he is pursuing isn’t keeping trophies like most, he’s eating them. Graham has his revelation that Lecter is the Ripper while sitting in the older man’s home, and, drugged, manages to survive his altercation with Lecter, who is taken into custody. From there, we learn via opening credits newspaper montage that Graham spent a fairly lengthy period recovering from being stabbed by Lecter, followed by a not-insubstantial period of time in a mental facility as a result of his pronounced and unusual talent for empathy with those he profiles, which is plot relevant here as it was in Manhunter.
Several years later, Will is now married to Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and living with her and his stepson Josh in Marathon, Florida, when Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) appears to ask him to help with the profile of an emerging serial killer menace, nicknamed The Tooth Fairy. Hitting a roadblock, Graham must consult with his previous partner/prey to once more access the mind of the killer. Elsewhere, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) is a man struggling with severe mental problems resulting from a lifetime of horrific abuse and violence at the hands of his grandmother, who was his guardian. As a result of a childhood cleft palate issue that has long since been addressed with reconstructive surgery, Dolarhyde perceives himself as horribly ugly, but he also constantly works out to deal with the aggressive nature of his flashbacks to his childhood traumas, acquiring a physique that all of his so-inclined coworkers find pretty attractive. We also learn that Dolarhyde and Lecter have managed to strike up a correspondence through personal ads in the National Tattler, the tabloid that employs Freddie Lounds (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a sleazy reporter against whom Graham has a personal grudge due to Lounds’s invasion of Graham’s hospital room following his altercation with Lecter, photographing and publishing the profiler’s wound.
This film follows almost all of the stations of the Red Dragon canon. Lecter manages to get information about where Graham lives, and he passes this off to Dolarhyde. Dolarhyde is revealed to hate the name “Tooth Fairy,” considering it derogative and an insult to the great Red Dragon (of William Blake’s poems and paintings) that he is becoming through the “changing” of his victims. Graham attempts to bait Dolarhyde by planting false information in the news via leaking “embarrassing” fabricated details from the FBI profile to Lounds, but instead of going after Graham as intended, Dolarhyde kidnaps Lounds instead and uses his burning body to send a message to Graham and Crawford. Molly and her son are whisked away to a safe location after the FBI realizes that Lecter’s latest personal ad/message to Dolarhyde included information about how to find Graham. The Red Dragon personality starts to lose its power over Dolarhyde when he meets and strikes up an odd relationship with blind photodeveloper Reba (Emily Watson), although when he misinterprets an innocent, friendly interaction between Reba and another colleague, the Dragon begins to reassert itself. Just as in the previous adaptation, Graham deduces that the Tooth Fairy gained intimate details about the families he killed (like being able to identify the family pet or knowing to bring a pair of bolt-cutters for a padlocked door) through both surveillance and access to their home movies via his job at a company that develops, processes, and edits film.
The film doesn’t diverge from the plot of Manhunter until Act III, when the FBI prepare to raid Dolarhyde’s home and find the place ablaze with Reba trapped inside. She relates that Dolarhyde shot himself in the face, as she heard the shot and accidentally touched his skull (etc.) in the aftermath. There’s no fire in Manhunter, and in that film Dolarhyde’s reign of terror ends with Graham defeating him in his home and returning from the episode at Dolarhyde’s to a happy family reunion at the beach. Here, Graham, Molly, and Josh are reunited, yes, but it turns out that Dolarhyde had staged his death using Reba as his unwitting accomplice through corroboration of his death, and he takes Josh hostage. Through berating the boy using the same language that was used to abuse Dolarhyde for so many years, Graham is able to force Dolarhyde to empathize with the boy and release him, and Dolarhyde is ultimately killed by Molly. And they lived happily ever after, as long as you ignore the canon from the books, and also that we know Hannibal’s imprisonment isn’t forever.
What Red Dragon does have going for it is the best version of both Molly and Dolarhyde. Tom Noonan’s performance as Dolaryhyde in Manhunter is nothing to scoff at, but that film brought Dolarhyde into the narrative very late in the runtime; not only is our time with him and his relationship with Reba rushed, but Manhunter also opts to cut the Dolarhyde death fake-out completely and instead end the film with the FBI raid on Dolarhyde’s home, meaning that we don’t get the scene in which Dolarhyde confronts Graham and his family in Florida. That also means that Molly has almost nothing to do in Manhunter, although one of the few good Molly scenes in the 1986 film is missing here: there’s a great atmospheric scene in Manhunter after we have just learned that Lecter has managed to get Graham’s address and send it to Dolarhyde, when Molly and Kevin (not Josh) are in the Graham home and there’s some misdirection that implies that they’re in immediate danger, before it turns out to be the FBI, come to spirit them away to a safe house. By that point in the narrative in this film, the audience has already seen Dolarhyde and knows what he looks like, and it wouldn’t make narrative sense for that film to appear here. Instead, Molly gets to have her big scenes in the finale, which I like.
It had been nearly ten years since I saw Red Dragon, and having now seen so many different versions of Jack Crawford, I wasn’t sure I would be able to accept Harvey Keitel as the stern but affable FBI director, but that wasn’t the case here. You think of Keitel and you think about Reservoir Dogs, Taxi Driver, and Bad Lieutenant, of characters that err towards aggressive, corrupt, and sleazy. He’s actually rather good playing against type here, and although he’s still the worst version of Jack Crawford, it’s only because the other versions of him are done with so much more aplomb. The weak link in the cast is Norton, whose Graham isn’t vulnerable so much as he is pathetic. When he’s arguing his case to Molly that Crawford needs him to stop the next of the Tooth Fairy’s killings, he doesn’t sound like he believes himself so much as he is simply doing as he’s told by whoever got in the last word by the sole virtue of being the last person to speak. Although this Lecter is once again different from his foppishly eccentric characterization in Hannibal and his brief-but-resounding reptilian inhumanity in Silence, I like him here. The opening scene shows us Lecter in his element as a member of elite society, making puns about symphony and haute cuisine and holding court over all of his social peers while also secretly feeding them a musician who failed to meet his standards. Given that they center around a character called “Hannibal the Cannibal” there’s very little actual cannibalism in any of these films, with only a little Paul Krendler brain saute at the end of Hannibal, so it’s also nice to see him doing his thing here; the NBC Hannibal series would manage to (ahem) make a meal out of scenes like this every week, and it’s delightful.
This is the last we’ve seen of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal to date. He’s presumably still out there in this continuity, albeit he’d be extremely aged (Hannibal Rising presents him as a child of nine or so during the end of WWII, so he’d conservatively be 83 at this point). Although the Hannibal TV series has already given us an unforgettable modernization of this story, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be first in line for a present day feature in which an older Will Graham, now long retired, is approached by Director Starling and asked to work one last profile, and finally bring Hannibal Lecter back to justice once and for all. I’d prefer it if Graham were played by William Petersen and Starling was Jodie Foster, but I’ll take what I can get, even if it’s just a fanfiction out there (please note: I will not be reading any fanfiction). Don’t bother with this one unless you’re a completist; just watch Manhunter instead.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond