Red Dragon (2002) has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of the instant classic and award-winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
The novel of the same name by Thomas Harris was the first in the Hannibal Lecter series and takes place prior to The Silence of the Lambs, even though the movie adaptation came out 11 years later. A previous adaptation of the novel was released prior to Lambs in 1986 under the Manhunter title, starring William Petersen as lead character Will Graham before Petersen went on to be a star on the hit TV show CSI.
While Manhunter has gone on to have a cult following in recent years, it barely made a blip on the radar of most moviegoers, earning just a few million dollars at the box office. So of course someone in Hollywood decided we needed another adaptation of the book starring Hopkins again as Lecter.
The movie opens with a scene showing us how Lecter was first captured by FBI agent Will Graham, played by Ed Norton. The injuries Lecter inflicted on Graham before being captured force Graham into retirement, while Lecter is locked up for life for his murders.
Graham is called out of retirement by his former FBI boss Jack Crawford to help track down another serial killer (played by Ralph Fiennes), who slaughters families in their sleep and has been dubbed The Tooth Fairy by the media because of his tendency to bite his victims.
Through the killer’s clandestine correspondence with Lecter, we discover that the killer, whose real name is Francis Dollarhyde, doesn’t like the name given to him by the press and prefers to be known as the Red Dragon. Dollarhyde is obsessed with transforming himself and is inspired by William Blake’s classic 19th century paintings of a dragon known as The Great Red Dragon Paintings.
Graham is forced to consult with Lecter to better understand the Red Dragon and determine the killer’s identity before he kills again. Eventually, Dollarhyde comes after Graham and his family, resulting in a climactic ending.
Jonathan Demme directed The Silence of the Lambs and is in large part responsible for its monstrous success. His skilled directorial hand led Jodie Foster and Hopkins to some of the most chilling scenes in cinematic history. Unfortunately, the same can not be said of Brett Ratner’s direction in Red Dragon.
Unlike in The Silence of the Lambs, where Anthony Hopkins stole the show with his chilling portrayal of psychiatrist turned cannibal/serial killer Lecter, Hannibal now is but a parody of himself. Hopkins’ performance in Lambs made Lecter one of cinema’s most terrifying and enduring villains. In Red Dragon, Hannibal is more of a caricature, delivering lines with almost a sense of understanding that he’s already done it all as Lecter. You almost expect him to stop and wink at the audience after he delivers some of his lines.
Fiennes of course does a serviceable job as Dollarhyde, but you never really feel like he is a mythic, threatening force of nature who people should be terrified of. Even Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs is scarier. I mean, come on. “Put the lotion in the basket” totally trumps the Red Dragon’s corny proclamations like “You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing. To me, you are a slug in the sun. You are an ant in the afterbirth.” Of course, as with many of my issues with this movie, this could come down to directorial choices more than any fault of the actor.
Also, there’s the fact we’ve see all this before. There is nothing new here from what we’ve previously seen in The Silence of the Lambs and the Lambs sequel Hannibal, whose movie adaptation released in 2001 before Red Dragon. It’s the same ground being retread for a third time, which results in what should be a thrilling horror/crime movie instead turning into a potential snooze fest.
If you’ve never seen Red Dragon, only watch it if you are a Hannibal Lecter completist who wants to read or watch everything with his name attached to it. Otherwise, spend two hours doing something more worthwhile, like sorting your mismatched socks.
Tim Busbey is an award-winning editor and journalist who currently does freelance w iting and book editing, and is a partner with Erin Al-Mehairi in Hook of A Book Media and Publicity. When he’s not editing other people’s stories , Tim writes sci-fi, thrillers and horror.