Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky suggests you invent your own joke about cannibalism and Brett Ratner. He just lost his appetite.
"Gruesome isn't he? Fumbles at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle."—Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins)
Dr. Hannibal Lecter puts it in the most succinct terms in the novel, The Silence of the Lambs: "Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place." Of course, he is talking about divine power and the nature of evil. But he could just as easily be talking about Hollywood. Knowing Dr. Lecter's penchant for making culinary use of the otherwise useless, I sometimes wonder which side of dinner table he would reserve for producer Dino De Laurentiis. Never mind that De Laurentiis has produced such fine swans as La Strada and such cinematic plagues as the 1976 King Kong remake and Diabolik! and Orca and—well, let us be honest here: he has produced more bad films than good ones.
Dr. Lecter might be willing to cut De Laurentiis a break though for The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme's top-notch adaptation of the second novel in Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter trilogy. He might even appreciate Michael Mann's icy Manhunter, with Brian Cox in the Lecter role. Even moments of dry wit in Ridley Scott's Grand Guignol farce Hannibal might score points.
But De Laurentiis lost much of that good will on Red Dragon. Never mind that the film is unnecessary, given that Michael Mann already did a fine adaptation of the same book only 15 years before. Watching the 2-disc, so-called "director's edition" of the film only makes it more evident why the film itself is fairly useless.
Fiddling a bit with Thomas Harris' continuity from the novels, Red Dragon begins in 1980 with the capture of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, of course, his wrinkles digitally removed) by young, edgy FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton). Lecter nearly guts Graham with a linoleum knife during the melee, prompting Graham to retire prematurely to the Florida Keys. When Harris picked up the tale here, at the beginning of his novel, the "burned out profiler called back for one last case" had not yet become a cliché. Yet, after so many years, the course of the film becomes terribly familiar from here. Lead profiler Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel, given little else to do here but play the "caring police commander" part) entices Graham to join the investigation into a set of brutal serial killings in Atlanta. Of course, Graham has a special ability to get into the minds of serial killers.
Hoping for some insight into the killer, Graham consults his nemesis, Hannibal Lecter, now seething in the asylum, guarded over by franchise stalwarts Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison, whom the extras proudly tout as the only actor to make it through all four Lecter movies. Do you think De Laurentiis will try to squeeze him into the upcoming prequel?
Meanwhile, the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) romances a blind girl (Emily Watson) while plotting his transformation into the fearsome "red dragon." Any sympathy the audience might have for this movie rests with their quirky relationship, even though we know exactly where it is going every step of the way.
Unfortunately, in spite of a screenplay by Silence scribe Ted Tally, Red Dragon feels like warmed up leftovers from one of Dr. Lecter's better dinner parties. Director Brett Ratner does not seem to know how to handle a suspense film, resorting to fairly routine shot compositions and editing, helped only a little by Dante Spinotti's usually reliable photography. Every shot feels like something we have seen before. Worse, he has no flair for pacing: the dialogue scenes race along as if everyone is just trying to get the shot done quickly. Ratner is used to comedies, where speed is important—especially given that he cut his teeth on lightning-fisted Jackie Chan and motormouthed Chris Tucker. But in a suspense film, you have to leave time to show the characters thinking, deliberating, plotting. Nothing like that happens in Red Dragon. The characters seem to just be trying to cover script pages, not acting by choice.
It seems a pity with such a great cast. Both Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins show up to collect a fat paycheck. Judging from Brett Ratner's commentary track on Disc One, at least the director had fun. But he admits (in the presence of Ted Tally) that he was told to shoot the picture quickly and speed up the dialogue to keep the film's length down. Ah, Hollywood.
Disc One of Red Dragon is identical to the previous Universal single-disc release of the film, adding an isolated score track with sporadic commentary by Danny Elfman, brief interviews with John Douglas (the pioneering FBI profiler who served as the model for Crawford) and Anthony Hopkins (who treats Lecter as just another job), a "behind-the-scenes" puff piece, some deleted scenes (with optional commentary), and a chronology of Lecter's life and crimes that is curiously consistent with the novels—for example it places the events of Red Dragon in 1978 rather than the mid-80s—and not with the films.
The special treat, if you can call it that, of the "director's edition" of the film is a second disc of bonus features. All of them are pretty expendable, but I am sure De Laurentiis made some decent spare change from the double-dip. Brett Ratner is center stage in a 40 minute featurette that shows how much gee-whiz fun it is to make a horror movie. Look for the set visit by Michael Jackson and the Passover Seder. Ratner's unpleasant student film from NYU is here too. The rest of the disc shows off behind-the-scenes footage: screen tests, special effects shots, storyboards. Some are featured with commentary tracks. None of it you will watch a second time, if you can be bothered to watch it the first time.
One thing is apparent throughout all the extra features spotlighting Ratner and grooming him for A-list status (which he seems to have cemented in his equally pedestrian work on the financially successful X-Men: The Last Stand). Ratner is the ideal director from a studio executive's perspective in that he does exactly what he is told and makes as few waves as possible (after all, a creative vision might interfere with his focus on having parties). This is exactly why I suspect a real Dr. Lecter would hold Dino De Laurentiis more responsible for the failings of this movie than a studio flunky like Ratner. As a director on this picture, Ratner seems more interested in looking for ways to imitate Jonathan Demme than in establishing his own look for the Lecter franchise. At least Ridley Scott made Hannibal, for all its flaws, his own film.
Ultimately, Brett Ratner has done the worst thing he could do to Hannibal Lecter: he made him into just another Hannibal Lecter clone. Red Dragon becomes just another serial killer film trying to recapture the dry precision of The Silence of the Lambs. And Anthony Hopkins spends his screen time seemingly doing a Hannibal Lecter impersonation rather than becoming the character we all loved to hate only a few years ago. Sure, De Laurentiis had a box office hit with Red Dragon, but any momentary pleasures the film provides look more like empty calories with each passing day.
I suspect the real Dr. Lecter, were he watching all this now, would be setting the table to invite them all over for dinner.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Brett Ratner and Ted Tally
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