Red Dragon (2002) 4K UHD Review: Hopkins’ Last Lecter

While Silence of the Lambs is justly Thomas Harris’s most famous story about Hannibal Lecter, it’s the previous novel, Red Dragon, that has been the most filmed. It was first adapted in 1987 by Michael Mann as Manhunter. This 2002 film marks the second adaptation, the third being the TV show Hannibal, though the actual events of the novel were relegated to the last half of that TV series’ final season.

FBI profiler Will Graham (here played by Edward Norton) is the central figure of the novel, but in the post Silence of the Lambs adaptations he plays a kind of duet with Hannibal Lecter. This is understandable, given the towering performance by Anthony Hopkins in that film. He reprises his role here but gives a very different kind of take on the refined cannibal killer.

Red Dragon is about the man who caught Hannibal Lecter, who had been his consultant and perhaps friend. This capture (depicted in the first 10 minutes of the film) was harrowing, both physically and mentally. So much so that Will Graham ended up in a mental hospital, and retired from the Bureau.

That should be the end of his story, but Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel in kind of a nothing role) comes to him with a case and a looming deadline. The Tooth Fairy has murdered two families in the last two months, both on the full moon. They have three weeks to find him before he strikes again.

Jack wants Will because he thinks he’s special. First, because he has the unique ability to get into the minds of killers. He can empathize with the worst and see how they feel. Almost become them. Also, because if he gets stumped, he has a special relationship with a certain psychologist that might help.

The relationship between Graham and Lecter is central to this film. It was not to the original novel. It was more in the background, a reason why Graham is reluctant to re-enter crime investigation. Lecter was a specter. Here, he’s a full force.

In fact (relying on some internet sources), Lecter is on-screen more in this film than in Lambs. Though both films have the same screenwriter (Ted Tally), Lecter is a bit more of a screen villain here than a character. He’s an effect more than a person. Hopkins, accordingly, plays him differently, and smartly finds a note that is absent from his two other performances, in Lambs and Ridley Scott’s beautiful but daffy Hannibal. Red Dragon‘s Lecter is angry. Will Graham locked him up. He does not like being locked up. And he is not above revenge.

His instrument is the Tooth Fairy, Francis Dollarhyde. Ralph Fiennes plays this creature as someone afraid to speak, because if he let someone into his inner life, they’d have to be devoured by it. He has many of the same scenes as the Tom Noonan creation in Manhunter, though I found Noonan more impactful. He looks weirder and is more imposing at 6’5″.

It’s impossible not to compare this movie to the other versions and find it in many ways wanting. Ed Norton’s Will Graham is a strong upgrade from Manhunter‘s William Petersen, though it is one of Norton’s blandest performances. He doesn’t have the literally fevered intensity Hugh Dancy brought to the TV show. Red Dragon has a stellar cast, none of whom are at their best. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the obnoxious journalist Freddie Lounds, though he barely has room to do anything.

Brett Ratner directed the film. Before getting Me-Tooed out of the industry, he was known largely for reliability: good or bad, he’d get the film completed. For source material that needs intelligence and a sense of style to keep it from being too lurid or crass, he’s not the greatest choice. There’s frightening scenes and visuals in the film, but no mastery of tone. Silence of the Lambs feels like a descent into hell. Hannibal is a wild opera. Red Dragon… could be a couple of decent episodes of CSI.

It’s not a bad-looking film, at that. Shot, interestingly, by the same cinematographer that filmed Manhunter, Dante Spinoti, it does a decent job of blending the visual styles of that film and Silence of the Lambs, though it doesn’t quite match the ’80s neon starkness of the former nor the grit of the latter. This 4K presentation has decent color balancing and a proper filmic look, though I wouldn’t say it was reference quality.

Red Dragon as a film… is okay. The performances are good. The scary scenes are appropriately scary. It’s not a great adaptation of the novel, but it’s not embarrassing either. And except for the jarring, tone-deaf unnecessary scene at the very end directly connecting it to Silence of the Lambs, it does a decent job at capturing some of the mood (though little of the dread) of Hannibal Lecter’s mystique.

Red Dragon has been released on 4K UHD by Kino Lorber, on their KL Studio Classics line. The release includes two discs, the 4K and a Blu-ray, both of which contain the film based on a newly mastered scan 4K from the original negative. Both discs contain a commentary track with the writer and director, and a track with Danny Elfman’s isolated score.

On the Blu-ray disc there are also numerous video extras, all previously released. These include “The Making of Red Dragon” (15 min), an EPK-style behind the scenes featurette; “A Director’s Journey” (40 min), a featurette on the making of the film; “Visual Effects” (4:26); “Screen and Film Tests” (12 min); “Anthony Hopkins: Lecter and Me” (5 min), a brief interview with Hopkins; “Makeup Application” (1 min); “Burning Wheelchair” (4 min), a behind the scenes look at one specific sequence in the film; “The Leeds’ House Crime Scene” (4 min); Storyboards (9 min); “Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer, Hosted by John Douglas” (8 min), where the FBI profiler discusses serial crime, Additional Scenes (14 min), all with optional commentary, and “Brett Ratner’s Student Film” (4 min.) Also included is text extra “Lecter’s FBI File and Life History.”

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Kent Conrad

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