Must cinephiles have to choose between Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (1986) and Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” (2002)? The comparisons between the films are inevitable but not entirely fair. When Mann adapted Thomas Harris’ (?year?) “Red Dragon,” he created a mean, propulsive and visually rich work that felt like an extension of his TV creation, “Miami Vice.” “Manhunter” stars William Peterson as Will Graham, an in-demand FBI profiler with the ability to get inside the head of whomever he’s after. His latest assignment: to catch a deranged killer, referred to as “The Tooth Fairy. Assisting him in his investigation is another monster, who taunts and teases Graham from the confines of his cell, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by Brian Cox).
Mann’s film, unlike the subsequent works adapted by Harris’ novels dealing with Lecter, is more expressionistic, delving into masculinity and the feeling of “safety,” than a straight forward police procedural. Mann’s film, like many others in his body of work, is downright mythic in its depiction of good and evil. Only Ridley Scott’s 2001 “Hannibal” is similarly demonstrative with its style and rich cinematic palette, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When Mann made “Manhunter,” it was a stand-alone work, a far-above-average serial killer mystery and an instant flop that garnered a massive cult following over time. Film buffs gave Mann’s film a renewed attention after the release of Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster 1991 “The Silence of the Lambs,” which became a Best Picture Oscar winner and cultural touchstone. A decade later came Scott’s “Hannibal,” another massive hit that, unlike Demme’s film, divided everyone and tested the gag reflexes of even the most desensitized Fangoria subscriber. Nevertheless, audiences were enthralled to see Sir Anthony Hopkins playing the role originated by Cox, and making it firmly his own. The demand for an encore after “Hannibal” wasn’t surprising, though arriving a mere year later and in the form of a “Manhunter” re-telling certainly was. So was the choice of director: Ratner, best known for the “Rush Hour” movies and “The Family Man.”
In “Red Dragon,” Edward Norton plays Graham, haunted by a series of cases that led to succesful results but a haunted psyche. His plans to retire and walk away with his wife (Mary Louise Parker) and son are interrupted by the arrival of his boss, Jack Crawford (played by Harvey Keitel). Crawford requests that Graham applies his special skills to capture the vile Tooth Fairy (played by Ralph Fiennes) and even suggests he consult with his former mentor, Lecter, who is imprisoned for a vast list of offences.
Ratner’s unlikely pairing with this material winds up being a good thing. An unwise decision would have been to compete with “Manhunter” or “Hannibal” and douse the proceedings with style and demonstrative camera work. Instead, the film isn’t style-driven (although its attractively shot by Dante Spinotti, who also filmed “Manhunter” and other Mann masterpieces). Ratner’s approach is to stay out of the actor’s way, not overdo the atmosphere and make this a character-driven piece. His efforts aren’t spectacular but they are smart.
This is an excellent, faithful and suitably unsettling take on Harris’ novel. Ratner’s film is so different from Mann’s (even though they share identical scenes and key bits of dialog), it stands just fine on its own. The only conventional aspect here that frustrates is Danny Elfman’s too on-the-nose score, which underlines moments that would have been better presented in silence.
So, if you’re looking for a “Manhunter” v. “Red Dragon” takedown, here’s a few: Norton doesn’t push the role of the Manhunter, allowing us to Graham as a man fighting against the role he plays at work. Peterson’s deeply haunted Manhunter, on the other hand, is rotting from the inside out, as he’s consumed by his brilliance as a detective. I like Norton’s work but Peterson is an unforgettable Graham. Hopkins’ magnificent Lecter is a pleasure in the third go. The character’s resentment at being imprisoned is nicely mirrored by a sedated beast who pops up in the second act. I’ve never found Cox’s Lecter (spelled “Lecktor,” for some reason, in “Manhunter”) all that interesting. Hopkins has a way with lines like the one where he describes the color of blood in the moonlight. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, even in his brief screen time, makes a great Freddie Lounds (more so than Stephen Lang did in Mann’s film) but Fiennes’ eerie turn (more Norman Bates than Jeffrey Dahmer) is no match for Tom Noonan’s terrifying performance in “Manhunter.” Emily Watson is wonderful as the Tooth Fairy’s surprising love interest, though Joan Allen was superb playing the same role in Mann’s film.
The final comparison to make is the opening. Once again, only the word mythic does justice to how Mann and Spinotti frame Graham and Crawford conversing beside a beach. On the other hand, the thrilling pre-credits sequence of “Red Dragon,’ which wasn’t in Harris’ novel or any other adaptation, is the crown jewel of Ratner’s film. It also offers a tasty glimpse of what Bryant Fuller’s gorgeously grotesque, richly layered and ground-breakingly gross TV series, “Hannibal” would offer a decade later. Bon Appetite.