Red Dragon can best be summed up as a copycat film of The Silence of the Lambs, despite the book it’s based on having been written and published first. Essentially, this is the same film as Silence, with a few key differences: (1) it’s a prequel, (2) the main character is a male, and (3) the antagonist gets more time on-screen and is more sympathetic than Buffalo Bill was in Silence.
That’s probably oversimplifying things, so let’s step back a bit. Our film opens with the capture of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). He and an FBI agent named Will Graham (Edward Norton) are working on a case together. Unbeknownst to Lecter, Will has actually pieced enough together to know that Lecter was the one who killed people and ate their corpses. After a brief fight scene, Lecter is captured, and Will has been stabbed in the stomach.
We then fast-forward to several years later. Will has retired from the FBI due to the shock of dealing with Lecter, and now has a wife (Marie-Louise Parker), a son (Tyler Patrick Jones), and has a happy life repairing boats and living in a warm climate. Lecter, as anyone who has seen The Silence of the Labs knows, has been locked up (with an impressive seven life sentences). It wouldn’t be a terribly exciting movie if Will stayed in paradise for the entire film, so Special Agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), tells him that there’s still work to do for the FBI.
See, there’s a serial killer on the loose who is nicknamed by the local paper “The Tooth Fairy” (Ralph Fiennes). He has killed two entire families so far (including the family pets), and time is running out before he’ll strike again. Will is brought in because he’s the best profiler in the business. Of course, the film would be dull if Lecter didn’t get involved at some point, so Will decides that he’ll head to the doctor seeking advice to help catch the Tooth Fairy.
Does that plot sound familiar? Young FBI agent enlists the help of possibly insane serial killer to track down another serial killer? Well, it should, because it’s the same one used in The Silence of the Lambs. Almost exactly the same, in fact, and it makes it difficult to recommend Red Dragon based on that alone. You’ve seen it before, and this is a vastly inferior film to The Silence of the Lambs. You might have seen this exact story already, as in 1986, Thomas Harris’ novel was adapted into a film titled “Manhunter.”
There are a couple of reasons I don’t think Red Dragon worked all that well. The first was the (utterly unbelievable) decision to not feature much of Anthony Hopkins. At this point in the franchise, are you watching for anything other than Hannibal Lecter? If you are, you’re in luck with this film, because Lecter isn’t all that prominently featured, even if Hopkins receives top billing. He’s less involved this time around than in Silence, and he was only on-screen for somewhere around 16 minutes in that film.
We miss the interaction between Lecter and whichever FBI Agent is tough enough to take him on in a psychological duel. But even in the scenes when we get the two characters together, there’s little war going on between them. The talks are pleasant, Lecter seems more than willing to help, and Will rarely has to even pressure him. Lecter is more of a source of (convoluted) exposition than of true intrigue in this film, which is a departure from what was the best part of The Silence of the Lambs.
The other reason comes directly from the film’s director, Brett Ratner. Best known for the Rush Hour flicks, Ratner never seemed to me like a good fit for this material. He doesn’t grasp any sense of suspense or dread, and for the most part, this is a film lacking in atmosphere. Even the previously menacing Dr. Lecter never appears to be much of a threat. Remeber the scene in Silence when we first walk down to see the good doctor? A similar moment happens in this one, but we feel nothing but apathy as it’s happening.
Perhaps it’s the fact that we’ve already seen this character twice before that he no longer is as interesting or threatening. He induced a real sense of despair in Silence, and he got to show off in Hannibal, but after his debut, he never really seemed to be someone to fear. We were fascinated, not frightened, by him. This time around, locked safely behind bars and willingly surrendering information, he can no longer hold an audience by himself. Hopkins isn’t given much to do with here, which is a shame because he does such a good job with the role.
Red Dragon is a movie that does an adequate job of copying the plot from The Silence of the Lambs, but doesn’t bring anything fresh or original to the table. It has far more negatives than positives — particularly in the rendering of Hannibal Lecter, which is actually kind of sad and disheartening — and it’s just retreading old territory. I know that the novel came before, but there was no reason to make this movie, especially if it’s just going to be the same as Silence, a vastly superior film. Not even Anthony Hopkins can salvage this film.