Expectation can be a bitch. We see it all the time with each new summer and their mega-hyped, blockbuster brethren: movies that carry such lofty expectations, they could never truly be met in any real way. Nothing is released in a vacuum, and so we have endless films with invisible weights on their shoulders; films based on beloved comics or novels or featuring the remarriage of actors with the classic characters that made them famous in the first place. So, by that rationale, saying you’re going to make a movie about Hannibal Lecter, post-Anthony Hopkins and the genre-redefining Silence of the Lambs, carries with it a certain degree of expectations. Expectations that were largely free of the first adaption of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon into 1986’s Manhunter, and expectations that hang over the subsequent 2002 redo with Hopkins like an overbearing Mama Bates. One of these movies features direction from Micahel Mann at his synth-infused, overheated Miami Vice best. The other… was directed by Brett Ratner.
But let’s be fair: despite being the Internet’s favorite whipping boy, Ratner’s not all that terrible a filmmaker. Beneath his bland, point-and-shoot aesthetic exists a certain degree of technical competence. In other words: give him a decent script, and it is entirely within his means to produce a decent movie. And while by no means a classic, Red Dragon is certainly decent, if not a little hamstrung in its efforts. Falling somewhere between the elegant trashiness of Silence of the Lambs and the straight-up cartoon violence of Hannibal, Red Dragon is a bit of an odd duck. Equally captivating and dull, it’s a truer adaptation of the source material than Mann’s film, but constantly undercut by the notion of the movie that it is expected to be. Namely, the presence of Hopkins and the character he helped make into what is widely considered one of the best villains ever in popular culture.
That notable difference is apparent from the introductory scene of each film. Red Dragon opens by showing us the moment FBI profiler Will Graham has his oft-referenced deadly encounter with Dr. Lecter, where he finally discovers that it was Hannibal all along who was the killer behind the case they had been working together. Mann eschews all of that, instead preferring to introduce us to the now-retired Graham as he’s propositioned by his former boss Jack Crawford to get back in the game and help them track a new serial murderer called the Tooth Fairy. This is a Will Graham who’s long left behind the constipated-face stylings of Hugh Dancy on TV’s Hannibal for a normal life, with a wife and a kid and a job that doesn’t require him to take on the personalities of extravagant serial killers who’ve ingested way too much CSI and Clive Barker.
The central conceit of the story is Graham’s mental state, and whether or not being drawn into this new case will send him spiraling back into the brief madness he flirted with after apprehending Lecter. In theory, getting the same actor who played the similarly disturbed and neurotic Tyler Durden to play Graham sounds like a masterstroke of casting, but while Ed Norton doesn’t do a terrible job in the lead, he never quite hits that sweet spot of ambiguity; where you’re never quite sure if he’s starting to lose his grip. By contrast, William Peterson’s Graham in Manhunter is like a ticking time bomb. With each passing scene, he’s absorbed more and more by the case, and Peterson’s performance gives off the sense that that is perhaps what the character wants; he gets excited by each and every new insight into the Tooth Fairy’s warped personality. Whereas Norton’s family is portrayed as rather idyllic, Peterson’s Graham begins to push his wife further away, to the point where his own son is scared to leave him alone with her. It’s just as Lecter tells him in both films: he and Graham are not so dissimilar - both hunters of men - and Peterson’s performance is constantly on the edge, as he simmers away in every scene at the excitement of being on the scent again, thus making us fear that he may tip too far over in the other direction and become a killer himself. Despite Norton’s otherwise-fine performance, we never once believe that this is a guy who’s just a few inches from going over into the deep end, which winds up hampering the entire point of the film.
Another notable difference is the Tooth Fairy/Frances Dolarhyde, played by Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes, respectively. We’re introduced to Fiennes’ version of the character early on in Red Dragon, in a pseudo-flashback that harkens so close to Psycho it almost plays like parody. From there on we cut back and forth between Graham and the FBI’s pursuit of Dolarhyde and the killer’s budding romance with his blind coworker Reba. The approach certainly allows us an entryway into Dolarhyde, but at the same time it removes the menace from the character. In Manhunter, we don’t meet Dolarhyde until his creepy introduction upon kidnapping tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds. The anticipation builds and builds throughout the movie as we hear an awful lot about the Tooth Fairy and witness the aftermath of his actions, but see neither hide nor hair of him until nearly the halfway point, when Tom Noonan is revealed in a way that remains creepily effective to this day, what with his unnatural height and that nightmare-inducing way he wears ladies’ stockings over half his face. Both men are superb actors, but there is a marked difference in their approach. Fiennes is acting like a crazy person; Noonan is a crazy person.
It’s with Hannibal himself and Hopkins’ portrayal where we get back to that original notion of expectations. When Manhunter was released in 1986, Anthony Hopkins had yet to make his indelible impression upon the character, and so we are given “Dr. Hannibal Lecktor” as played by Hopkins’ equally talented contemporary, Brian Cox. Looking at Manhunter now, it’s shocking when you realize that the famous cannibal doctor is only in a handful of scenes, and ultimately not a huge factor in the narrative. But Cox certainly leaves an impression, paving the way for Hopkins with his mannered portrayal of cultured psychopath. Had he been in a few more scenes, Cox just might have nabbed that iconic status Hopkins got when he tackled the role almost six years later.
And that’s one of the central problems with the 2002 film: as played by Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal Lecter is an icon. Any movie he makes an appearance in will be suitably tailored around Hopkins’s performance. Lecter has about as much significance here as he does to the overall plot in Manhunter, and yet Hopkins gets top billing and dominates over the proceeding film. Had Silence of the Lambs never been made, viewers would probably be baffled why so much time is spent on this relatively inconsequential side character. The problems begin already in the aforementioned opening scene, which plays like the origin of a supervillain on some Saturday morning cartoon. Hopkins starts the character at eleven, and rarely ever comes down. Gone is the modulated, creepy menace of his original portrayal, replaced instead by a caricature based entirely on the “fava beans” line from Lambs. Which is sadly kind of expected whenever actors return to famous roles: from Jack Sparrow to Snake Plissken, it always seems as if no one can quite figure out what drew audiences to these characters in the first place, focusing on the surface details while missing the meat of what made the characters work. That said, it’s still a good bit of fun watching Hopkins’ hammy performance, since the actor can ham it up with the best of them, but it’s not nearly as impactful as the barely-contained menace of Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
As adaptations of Thomas Harris’ novel, both movies are largely successful, although one could argue that the changes made in Manhunter improve the overall story. Red Dragon is still an incredibly watchable movie, but its paint-by-numbers process and the legacy of Hopkins’ performance means that the film never gets to develop any of the fascinating ideas it proposes along the way *. On the flip side, removed of any hype or expectations, Michael Mann and co. are free to fully explore their themes in Manhunter, a crime thriller that deserves classic status on par with The Silence of the Lambs.
* Such as Lecter’s parting line in the movie, where he bemoans the mediocrity of the modern world, stating, “Any rational society would either kill me or put me to some use.”