Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be looking at 2002’s prequel/remake/cash-in, Red Dragon! After the negative reception of Hannibal, would a more back-to-basics prequel be able to reel in audiences? Read on to find out…
Frustratingly enough, there’s no production history about this movie on Wikipedia or the Hannibal Lecter wiki and I couldn’t find a making of featurette with any worthwhile information so I had to get creative and look up production information from way back in 2001 and 2002. Even before the release of Hannibal, Dino and Martha de Laurentiis announced that they were going to remake Red Dragon, emphasizing that Lecter’s role in the story would be expanded and there were rumours that Ridley Scott would be back to direct it. Manhunter‘s critical reevaluation had surged by this point, with even more popularity coming its way with the premiere of CSI and there was some discontent at the idea of remaking the film less than 20 years later. However, given the more than 10 year gap between the publication of The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, it was obvious that no new Hannibal Lecter material was going to be produced any time soon so they needed to cash in somehow.
Hannibal‘s tepid response had soured many critics on the prospect of another outing though, with some saying that he had become a joke and moved into the realm of camp. Perhaps because of this, Ridley Scott didn’t return for Red Dragon and the project pivoted in a more serious direction, more akin to The Silence of the Lambs‘ tone. As if to confirm this direction, Ted Tally returned to write the script after skipping Hannibal due to his objections to the novel’s story. It was even rumoured that Jodie Foster may make a cameo appearance, despite the fact that Red Dragon was supposed to take place ten years prior to The Silence of the Lambs and everyone involved had noticeably aged in the interim (an obvious issue which the de Laurentiis brushed off casually). An issue which may have scuppered this idea was that MGM still held the rights to characters exclusive to The Silence of the Lambs, while Red Dragon was exclusively being distributed by Universal.
By the fall of 2001, human garbage pile Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame) had signed on to direct the film and a plethora of talent flocked to Tally’s script, including Edward Norton as Will Graham, Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Lounds. Hopkins, of course, would return as Hannibal Lecter, having secured himself an $8 million payday plus 7.5% of the film’s profits for a role that is essentially an extended cameo. That just left the role of Francis Dolarhyde in the air. While Sean Penn was in early talks to play the role, Ratner wanted Ralph Fiennes, known at the time for dramatic roles in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, as well as being the antagonist in Schindler’s List. In December of 2001, Fiennes won the role and started a hardcore workout regimen to try to get himself into shape – Dolarhyde was supposed to be an intimidating bodybuilder-type and Fiennes (who describes his body shape as “slight”) had only a month until shooting began to bulk up, especially because he is completely nude for several of his scenes.
Also worth noting was the return of Manhunter cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who Ratner wanted so badly that he delayed production of the film in order to wait for Spinotti’s schedule to open up. While some people questioned by Spinotti would try to shoot the exact same story again, he clarified that he felt like Ted Tally’s script changed the feel of the movie; it was more faithful to the book and had a more realistic, grounded style. Faithfulness to the book also extended to the shooting, with Ratner filming on location in the book’s environs as much as possible. Production designer Kristi Zea, who had worked on The Silence of the Lambs, was also brought back to try to give Red Dragon a similar feel.
The film released on October 4, 2001 and, while it did fairly well and received mostly positive reviews, it ended up grossing only $209.1 million, a little more than half the numbers Hannibal raked in. It seemed like Lecter fatigue had well and truly set in…
…I’m actually at a bit of a loss trying to figure out how I’m going to do this, because the overarching plot of Red Dragon is nearly identical to Manhunter. I’ve done remakes on the Retrospectives series, sure, but they always had big deviations and were distinctly different. Red Dragon doesn’t do that – it has its own distinct tone and style, but that doesn’t come across in a plot synopsis when 95% of the plot beats are the same. I was tempted to just copy + paste my plot synopsis from that film and then insert a couple sentences to show where this movie deviates, but that’s literally wasting my readers’ time. So, I’m just going to summarize the differences between this movie and Manhunter:
- The movie opens with Hannibal Lecter at the opera and it is heavily implied that he kills the flute player for being bad at his job and then serves him to the orchestra’s board of directors. Shortly thereafter, he meets with Will Graham to discuss a case that Graham is stumped on. During their conversation, Will suddenly realizes that Hannibal Lecter fits the profile he’s been working on and Lecter ambushes him, nearly getting him. Before Lecter can land the killing blow though, Will stabs him with three arrows and then shoots him repeatedly, incapacitating the doctor and arresting him. Over the opening credits, it is revealed that Will has a psychological breakdown and retires.
- The film then plays out largely the same for a long time. The main differences are that Will meets Hannibal now because he thinks best when he’s able to bounce ideas off of the doctor and many of the revelations that he comes to himself in Manhunter now come after visiting Lecter for clues. In addition, Dolarhyde appears earlier in this film, meaning that his romance with Reba is given more time to breathe.
- The next big deviation is that Dolarhyde hears voices telling him to kill Reba after they have sex. Dolarhyde tries to defy them, even threatening to commit suicide in order to save her, but he is unable to silence them. In a desperate attempt to save her, he goes to the Brooklyn Museum and eats William Blake’s original painting of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, hoping that this will break its control over him.
- From there, the film plays out the same until the ending of Manhunter. Instead of taking Dolarhyde down in a shootout at his home, Dolarhyde can’t bring himself to kill Reba. Instead, he burns his house down and then stages a fake suicide, substituting co-worker Ralph Mandy’s body for his own as Reba escapes to the police. Some time later, Will Graham has returned to his family when he receives a call from Jack Crawford warning him that Dolarhyde is still on the loose. He finds Dolarhyde with Will’s son and a shootout ensues in which Will and Dolarhyde are shot several times each. Will’s wife, Molly, takes his gun and gets the final shot in on the killer, ending the reign of terror of the Red Dragon once and for all.
Red Dragon feels like a back-to-basics effort, trying to appease the fans after the backlash Hannibal received by making something that was safe and familiar. While the plot structure is a bit different than The Silence of the Lambs, you can see that the filmmakers were trying to harken back to it. These callbacks are met with mixed results, but the most obvious and important example of this is how Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s relationship has been changed in Red Dragon. In Manhunter, Will visits Lecter once in order to get back into the mindset he needs to hunt the Red Dragon. In Red Dragon, Lecter and Will are effectively a dysfunctional team, with Will bouncing ideas off of Lecter and Lecter pushing Will in the right direction. I was actually surprised at how well this change works in the opening scene, it makes the relationship between Will and Lecter more interesting, helps lay out why Will is so hesitant to return to the FBI and goes a long way to justifying why Will would keep going back to Lecter several times (and therefore give Hopkins more screentime). That said, eventually it starts to get insane that Will would keep talking to Lecter. Like, are you telling me that Will would continue to see Lecter after the bastard tried to have his family killed in retribution for Will capturing him!? I get that another family could die if you don’t catch the Red Dragon soon, but continuing to bring someone who is openly antagonistic to you into the investigation just seems counter-intuitive. There’s also the issue that this change in their relationship makes Red Dragon‘s Will Graham seem less competent than he was in Manhunter, where Graham had to figure out everything on his own. Will Graham didn’t really come across as someone with a sick mind in Manhunter, but in Red Dragon it comes across even weaker since Hannibal ends up doing all the profiling and Will just puts the pieces together.
On the shittier end of the Silence callbacks is the constant, in-your-face references to The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I hate this kind of hamfisted nostalgia that exists for no other reason than for you to go “Oh hey I remember that!” The entire sequence where Will meets the imprisoned Lecter for the first time is a perfect example, it rips off the opening of The Silence of the Lambs entirely nearly shot-for-shot. Oh look, it’s Dr. Chilton, remember how much you hate him? Oh hey, it’s the same dungeon where Lecter is kept, remember that? This is, of course, undermined by the fact that everyone is noticeably a decade older than they were in the previous film and no amount of half-assed makeup and hair-dye can disguise that fact. Even worse, while I was impressed at how well they justified expanding Lecter’s role early on, the more the film drags on the more contrived, disruptive and tiring it gets. The further in the film gets, the less relevant to the plot Lecter is and his constant shoehorning in gets infuriating. Like, after it’s discovered that Hannibal sent Dolarhyde Will’s family address, we get a short scene where Chilton takes away all of Hannibals books… did we really need this scene? It literally feels like a DVD deleted scene, especially because Will visits Hannibal later and we’d get this same information anyway. And then, during one of the climactic moments of the film when Dolarhyde sneaks into the museum to eat the Blake painting, we keep cutting back to Hannibal eating a meal… why!? It literally just disrupts the tension of the scene. Probably worst of all though is that as the film is ending Dr. Chilton says that a female FBI agent is going to meet Hannibal… hey, you like The Silence of the Lambs, don’t you? You know who that female agent is! It’s things that you like, therefore you like this too! It doesn’t close this story, it doesn’t add anything to this movie, it just panders to what we’re familiar with.
As I’ve alluded to already, Hopkins’ Hannibal is just tiring in this film. It’s obvious that they’ve tried to tone him down after the backlash Hannibal received, but Hopkins is still hamming it up, it’s just more restrained than it was in the past… which, honestly, is a shame. If audiences don’t find your serial killer scary anymore, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle without a complete overhaul and Red Dragon doesn’t go far enough in that direction. Hopkins just doesn’t seem to have as much energy as he used to and the fact that the movie wants to shove him in our face constantly doesn’t do him any favours. As for Will Graham, Edward Norton is just fine. He portrays Will’s concerns as a family man more compellingly than William Peterson did in my opinion, but in basically every other way he’s not as strong of a protagonist (which is in part because, again, Lecter steals most of his thunder and makes him look less competent). Will Graham is just not a very compelling character for me in Red Dragon or Manhunter, he’s just your archetypal hero cop. Most of the supporting cast seem to phone in their roles as well. Harvey Keitel’s Jack Crawford is literally the exact performance you would expect from “Harvey Keitel as a boss cop”. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also just giving as baseline a performance as you could imagine an actor of his caliber to give, although in his case it works really well for Freddie Lounds, makes the character feel less cartoonishly sleazy and more interested in money to the point that he’ll do anything without remorse.
Luckily for Red Dragon, Ralph Fiennes’ Francis Dolarhyde and Emily Watson’s Reba McClane are easily the two best performances in the film and form its emotional core. I know that Tom Noonan’s performance in Manhunter has lots of fans for how imposing and weird he is, but in my opinion Fiennes makes for a much more interesting antagonist. For one thing, he is finally revealed only 40 minutes in instead of a full hour, meaning that we get significantly more time to develop his relationship with Reba. Furthermore, we get a much greater sense of Dolarhyde’s psychosis and how it creates conflict inside of him as his relationship with Reba deepens. The relationship itself is tragic, aided greatly by Emily Watson’s adorable performance as Reba. Her performance as Reba is super horny, with her trying to get Mr. D out of his awkward shell so she can get some of that Mr. D. The fact that she’s unaware of Dolarhyde’s psychopathy makes for a storyline that’s far more compelling than Will Graham’s A-plot and you’re left wondering if the Red Dragon can be defeated by love. That said, the very Psycho-esque voice-over from Dolarhyde’s grandmother which dominates his on-screen introduction is a very hamfisted way to get across his backstory. I understand that they had to get this across somehow in order for Will Graham’s taunting of the villain to work in the finale, but there had to have been a more elegant way to do so. Also, unlike Manhunter, we understand Dolarhyde’s psychology far better in Red Dragon but we don’t get a sense of why exactly he is killing families. In Manhunter it was because he wanted to possess what he couldn’t have because he was an incel loser. In Red Dragon he kills entire families because… he wants witnesses to his transformation into the Great Red Dragon? Because the voice tells him to? It’s weird that we get much more information about who Dolarhyde is but somehow understand why he kills less than we did in the comparatively sparse Manhunter.
I know that Red Dragon has a lot of fans, especially compared to Hannibal, but I personally just find it uninteresting. Whereas Hannibal went off in its own direction and wasn’t trying to be safe, Red Dragon seems terrified to try anything new. It takes a solid, well-liked story and then filters it through the lens of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, making for a very indistinct, also-ran kind of film. Manhunter is, overall, a more interesting film, but I do really like how Dolarhyde and Reba are handled by this film and prefer the ending of Red Dragon, so it’s a bit of a wash for me. The overall storyline is very solid and so it’s hard to really screw that up (even if you’re Brett Ratner; I find it hilarious that his Wikipedia page even goes out of its way to say that his movies suck), so Red Dragon is enjoyable even if it feels like it could have been conveyed better.
Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in the franchise, Hannibal Rising!