Chasing A Legend

`Red Dragon' has the grisly appetite, if not the execution of the original.

What it also has are monstrously good Ralph Fiennes and Edward Norton, plus a fine young Hannibal to save it.

Movie Review

October 04, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Red Dragon is to terror films what Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is to fantasy flicks. The script cleverly compresses the source book (along with a piece of The Silence of the Lambs), and the cast members look and in some cases act their parts to a T.

Die-hard fans of Thomas A. Harris' original novel - the one that introduced genius serial-killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and his FBI nemesis Will Graham (Edward Norton) - will enjoy the skillful illustration of its major plots and themes.

The unconverted may leave rattled and unmoved. Director Brett Ratner, who previously made the Rush Hour movies and the underrated Christmas lark The Family Man, is no sadist here, but no artist, either. He doesn't have the knack for intensifying horror - and for making the unwatchable watchable - through stylized imagery and suggestion.

The film begins with Graham's capture of Hannibal the Cannibal and continues with the agent's use of Lecter to capture an equally baroque killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes). Killing and mutilating entire families to fulfill a William Blake-inspired vision is what Dolarhyde does to overcome facial disfigurement and a youth filled with abuse. With a plot like this, it takes a surgically keen touch to keep the action from descending into harum-scarum Grand Guignol.

Michael Mann had that touch in Manhunter, the 1986 version of the same book. Indeed, nothing in this film is as profoundly unsettling as Mann's first build-up to a scene of family slaughter, the blood splashed on a master bedroom wall like a revolting action painting (which, in a way, it is). Nothing here contrasts the clash between Graham's gory work and humane values as well as Mann's vignette of Graham letting his crime-scene photos spill out of a file as he snoozes on a plane, shocking a little girl sitting next to him. And there's no moment as tingling here as the one in Manhunter when Graham imagines lights shooting from the eyes of Dolarhyde's female victims, bringing us inside his warped aesthetic vision.

What Ratner does have, and Mann didn't, is a star who encompasses the story's vast emotional spectrum from the mundane to the outre. Edward Norton as Graham is everything William Petersen wasn't and should have been: as playful and transparent with his wife (the instantly engaging Mary-Louise Parker) as he is mentally agile and purposely opaque with Lecter. Norton proves he's both a spookily chameleon-like character actor and a star capable of anchoring a movie with his own humanity. And for a while, Norton's reedy intensity and Ted Tally's canny screenwriting carry the show.

Tally understands Harris' witches' brew of ingredients. Of course, the Hannibal novels are responsible for the outbreak of forensic detective work that's taken over big and small screens, culminating in the Law & Order spinoff series (Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent) and CSI (which stars Petersen, Mann's Will Graham). Harris elegantly mixes sophisticated forensics with the heritage of supernatural fable. In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is like an evil sorcerer locked inside a cave, while Dolarhyde lives in a classic "old dark house" - the nursing home where his grandmother, in effect his evil stepmother, abused him and threatened him with castration. (Dolarhyde is, of course, the dragon that knightly Will must slay.)

But what makes Harris' books haunting is the way they play on serial killings as demented artistic acts that require detectives to make risky mental and emotional leaps. He puts his heroes - and his readers - into mind-locks with his villains, who use human flesh and blood as artistic materials. This kind of mental transport brings home the danger, not only of murder, but also of losing all your earthly moorings - and seeking immortality by any means.

In a sense, Red Dragon is a relative of The Red Shoes: Seal yourself off in some all-consuming aesthetic pursuit, and you court destruction, self-destruction, madness. Positive qualities like vision and empathy generate not hope but fear. Tally does lay this scarlet thread into his script. Norton perfects the stitch-work with the true movie star's gift of making us feel what he feels and think what he thinks - even when he's putting on his game face with Hannibal.

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