Red Dragon

I’ve always admired television stars like Mary Tyler Moore, the cast of “M*A*S*H” and more recently Ray Romano, who would rather close up shop while at the top than beat their shows to death until they become an embarrassment.

Try explaining that to folks who make movies. Did we really need “Beverly Hills Cop 3”? Or “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”? If those movies were animals, their owners would be arrested for abuse.

Now comes “Red Dragon,” author Thomas Harris’s first novel in what has become “the Hannibal Lecter” trilogy. “Red Dragon” isn’t a bad movie, just an unnecessary one, a high-priced attempt to milk even more money from the franchise that should have ended with “Lambs.” Director Brett Ratner, working from a script by “Lambs” Oscar-winning writer Ted Tally, has turned Mann’s moody psychological drama into a horror movie.

Even though both screenplays have their strengths and weaknesses, I prefer Mann’s approach. In “Manhunter,” Hannibal Lecter was a minor player, but played so memorably by Brian Cox that he left a lasting impression. Lecter is Hopkins’s calling card, so the focus has been changed to accommodate more Hopkins..

Tally has the privilege of working backwards, introducing dialogue and situations that will ultimately play out in “Lambs” and “Hannibal.” This includes re-introducing Lecter’s handler Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who would later share a meal with the good doctor. These morbid, dark moments are also quite funny, unlike the rest of the film, which takes itself too seriously.

By working backwards, the filmmakers are forced to reinvent the wheel, and while I admire Ratner’s restraint in not turning “Red Dragon” into a blood bath, his wheel is square. Anyone who has seen “Manhunter” will be leaps and bounds ahead of the plot.

Edward Norton plays retired FBI agent Will Graham, whose last encounter with Lecter almost left him dead. Living in solitude with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and his son (Tyler Patrick Jones), Graham is called back into action by friend and agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), who needs his help apprehending a serial killer.

Hoping to use Lecter’s brilliant criminal mind, Graham faces off against his old nemesis. The confrontations between Lecter and Graham are Tally’s best work, mental mind games that show both actors at the top of their game. Tally also adds more detail to the serial killer (Ralph Fiennes), a video technician who has been dubbed “The Tooth Fairy.”

Snooping around is tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who becomes such an annoyance that the Tooth Fairy makes a spectacle out of him. More innocently, the killer courts blind darkroom technician Reba (Emily Watson), who doesn’t notice the cleft lip that drives the killer crazy.

This is Ratner’s first foray into suspense-thrillers, and while he has made a well-educated film, it lacks the suspense and undercurrent of tension that ran through both “Manhunter” and “Silence of the Lambs.” The film looks great, but it doesn’t grab you. Is it because the characters are too familiar, or is it because Ratner is so afraid of ruining the franchise that he has made the safest film possible? Probably a little of both.

HOLLYWOOD CASH COW 101 Or how to milk a cannibal for all he’s worth


Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Heald. Directed by Brett Ratner. Rated R. 124 Minutes.


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