Red Dragon DVD

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.

DESSERT

The 2-Disc Director’s Edition features an impressive, vivid 2.35:1 widescreen transfer that looks terrific. The colors are bold and strong, with excellent saturation and flattering flesh tones. No transfer issues here, so don’t look for any pixelation or noise. Depth of field is amazing, as is attention to detail. Shadows and blacks are strong and impenetrable, while whites are clean thanks to a pristine original transfer print. Reds are especially vibrant, including various tones in the fire and gore effects.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround soundtrack (the disc also features a 2.0 soundtrack in French and Spanish languages) is effectively creepy, utilizing all sound fields to the best of their advantage. Front sound stage features a striking stereo split and a strong dialogue mix that clues you in to each and every syllable, while surround effects are bold and enveloping. Rear speakers are constantly alive with strong musical cues, realistic ambient noise and the occasional “boo” effect. Basses are strong but not overpowering, while middle and high ends are clean and devoid of hiss or any distortion. Combined, the overall effect is even better than you could get inside a theater.

Director Brett Ratner and writer Ted Tally share their thoughts on a feature-length audio commentary that is a balance between enthusiastic cheerleading and down-to-earth logic. Ratner is the cheerleader of the two, defending his decision to rally for the right to remake Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” and the personal choices he made in order to maintain the flow of the series while making “Red Dragon” his own. Tally provides the logic, detailing his choices on connecting the dots and beefing up the Hannibal Lecter character to accommodate Hopkins’ star turn. Together, Ratner and Tally provide enough insight and reason to make their words worth a listen.

Hidden deep in the recesses of Disc One, much like Lecter in his cell, is a quasi-commentary by composer Danny Elfman, who is featured during musical lulls in an isolated musical score track. Elfman is one of the best composers working in the business (he once threatened to quit, thank goodness he didn’t), and he expounds on his decision to pay homage to the previous scores in the Lecter series while giving this film a unique sound all its own.

Ratner and Tally also chime in on the DVD’s 15 additional scenes, all of which are welcome, but don’t really add any depth to the final film. Some of the scenes are extensions of included scenes, others are add-ons. Nothing gained, nothing lost, just a nice addition to the DVD. Lecter himself, Anthony Hopkins, provides a video interview of his personal relationship with the character, and how the character has changed the landscape of modern horror cinema. “The Criminal Profile of Hannibal Lecter” allows retired FBI profiler John Douglas to wax eloquent on how the Bureau profiles serial killers, and does a make-up of the infamous doctor. Also look for Lecter’s FBI case file that is a visual time-line of the killer’s history, plus “The Life History of Hannibal Lecter,” more background, read-only information.

“The Making of Red Dragon” is a standard-issue production featurette that provides the usual background information and interviews with the cast and key crew members.

Those who bought the “Director’s Edition” will appreciate the thought and effort that went into the second disc, a collection of featurettes and screen tests that take the viewer deep inside the film-making process. The worst extra is Ratner’s student film, obviously not an indication of what he was capable of. I’ve seen better film on my kitchen floor.

“A Director’s Journey” is an impressive 40-minute documentary which chronicles Ratner’s journey to make “Red Dragon.” Knowing full well that he would need extra footage for the DVD release, Ratner hired a video crew to follow him everywhere, capturing every aspect of the film process, from pre-production (location scouting), to the final premiere of the film. This is a smart collection of snippets that show just how difficult it is to bring a major motion picture to the screen.

The second disc also includes some interesting sidebars like make-up tests (choosing the right ink for the killer’s tattoo) to the horrific crime scene make-up (which comes with a warning, even though the same footage is included in another featurette without the warning), a splashy look at one of the film’s crime scenes, and a fiery look at how the flaming wheelchair stunt was set up and executed.

RED DRAGON Universal Studios Home Video

Rated R

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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