After nearly losing his life trying to capture the notorious serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), it has taken years for FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) to overcome his anxiety. Enjoying the quiet life on his Florida property with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and son, Graham is reluctantly called back into action when a serial killer called "The Tooth Fairy" begins his murderous rampage. "The Tooth Fairy" is actually a meek video lab techie named Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), who is overcome by his uncontrollable rage, only to be tempered by an unexpected romance with Reba McClane (Emily Watson), a blind woman who sees the good in Dolarhyde. With the help of Lecter, Graham tries to thwart Dolarhyde before he kills again. But behind Will's back, Lecter and Dolarhyde have made their own plans for his fate.
The chips are stacked against director Brett Ratner (The "Rush Hour" films, "The Family Man") with "Red Dragon" (IMDb listing). First of all, he's making the third Hannibal Lecter film, after Jonathan Demme's sensational "The Silence Of The Lambs," and Ridley Scott's wildly entertaining sequel "Hannibal." If that wasn't hard enough to top, Thomas Harris' suspense novel "Red Dragon" was previously turned into a 1986 feature called "Manhunter," which was near-brilliant as directed by Michael Mann ("Heat"). So how does Ratner turn this dark installment into magnificence when so much could've gone so wrong?
He sticks closely to the Harris story (scripted by "Silence" writer Ted Tally), fuels himself off the energy of his ample and capable ensemble, and relies on his natural gifts for storytelling to see him through. I've yet to see a Brett Ratner film that I didn't like, but with "Red Dragon," Ratner transforms himself from a spoiled rich kid with a dazzling gift for entertainment into a world-class filmmaker, whose last name, in a just la-la-land, would be as respected as Shyamalan or Soderbergh.
Mann's "Manhunter" was more of a character study than a thriller. It weaved slowly, building unrelenting power through its minimalist, yet achingly stylish, direction. The film hung on its actors, and often sacrificed the story to spend time with these people. The beauty of "Red Dragon" is that Ratner solves this problem right away. His narrative moves quickly, yet every character is given his or her due. "Manhunter" couldn't make much out of the Dolarhyde/Reba relationship, and the pairing felt forced and unnatural. "Red Dragon" gives this relationship time to grow. The picture is patient with this odd couple, and the reward for that is a film that feels whole. It's unavoidable to compare the two films, but I feel I'm doing a great disservice to both by doing so. Ratner and Mann have both made phenomenal films out of the Harris book, with Ratner's film a little more successful if only because there is hindsight in play. He knows the gaps in the tale already, and clearly makes time to address them all.
Even with the foundations for this movie set in concrete long before the first frame of film was exposed, it is Ratner's natural ability to weave a story that makes "Red Dragon" such a cinematic jolt. Ratner knows how to work an audience, and "Dragon" is often a tense affair. While not as arid as "Lambs" or as robustly grotesque as "Hannibal," "Dragon" goes for the suspense jugular more often than the other films. Set pieces involving Dolarhyde's interrogation of a wretched reporter (a repellent Philip Seymour Hoffman) crackle with tension. As does the climax, which follows formula to the tee, yet remains an edge-of-your-seat ride that tops the film like a cherry on a sundae.
It also helps to have Anthony Hopkins around. Leading the cast as Lecter for the third time in his career (Brian Cox portrayed the good doctor in "Manhunter"), Hopkins drinks in every moment as the demented cannibal. While, of course, it's fun to watch the sinister threats and double entendres roll off his tongue in that English-professor-meets-Ted-Bundy singsong voice Hopkins has, the actor does make time to make Lecter scary again. With a cast that includes good performances from Harvey Keitel, Watson, Parker, Hoffman, and a flat, but passable Norton, you remember the scenes with Hopkins as you walk out of the theater. And that's just the way it should be.
The demon of the picture is Ralph Fiennes, who's perfectly cast as Francis Dolarhyde. Fiennes gives the role his all, using his body as a conduit for Satan himself, and almost stealing the film away from Hannibal. Unlike the too-on-the-nose casting of hulking actor Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde in "Manhunter," Fiennes can pull off the everyman/sadistic killer act with a believability that's alarming. It's a terrific performance.
Taken on its own as a deliciously relentless thriller, or as part of one of the least likely franchises in Hollywood history, "Red Dragon" is categorically superb on both counts. I'm sad to see Lecter ride off into the sunset, but if this is the way they're going to finish him off, then I implore you all not to miss it.
Filmfodder Grade: A+