Red Dragon

dir: Brett Ratner
[img_assist|nid=1035|title=Ralph Fiennes never looked so cute|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=271|height=288]
I would never have believed that Brett Ratner, director of such classy fair as some of Mariah Carey's film clips and Rush Hour 2 would be capable of making a decent film. I guess films like this go against the auteur theory of film making, either that or he deserves more credit than I am capable of giving him.

It's weird. The film works, amazingly enough. It's not Battleship Potemkin, don't get me wrong, but it is not the mess that I expected. What can be said with a comfortable level of certainty is that Ratner achieved something that Ridley Scott, for all his pretensions of being a first rank director, could not: he manages to make the whole serial killer thing work again, and somehow compelled Anthony Hopkins to actually act. Like he gets paid to.

My hatred of that farce masquerading as a film known as Hannibal is well known, If it isn't, it should be. I proudly aligned myself with the masses last year in declaring it one of the most truly stupid and mishandled films ever made. I can count at least fifteen levels upon which Hannibal failed, and with a somewhat slightly less passionate zeal I can comfortably assert that in my anything but humble opinion, Red Dragon gets it right.

Yeah, I've seen ManhunterM, which people are in a rush stumbling over each other and themselves in order to praise as the definitive version of Thomas Harris' book. Honestly, I saw it back in the late 80s, and it didn't really get my juices flowing. There were some interesting ideas, but the most frightening ideas in the book (as in exactly how much Will Graham ends up identifying with his prey) are left out entirely. As they are here, as well. But most importantly, having watched it (Manhunter) recently again as well, I don't actually feel that it stands the test of time. If anything it looks uncomfortably dated, and the only real aspect of it with any lingering significance is William Petersen's performance, which was tetchy, nervous and desperate.

I kind of wish they could have used the magic of modern technology not to make Hannibal Lecter look younger (which they entirely fail to do, not that I cared), but to be able to interpose William Petersen's performance from Manhunter into Red Dragon. That would have made this film sterling, truly champagne stuff. As it is we have to accept in the role that lucky bastard that gets to have sex with Salma Hayek on a nightly basis, Ed Norton. Sure she can't act, but like any sensible person would care. You think Norton walks down the memory lane of Salma's laughable 'acting' performances every time they have sex? Hell no.

I love Ed Norton. He rocks my world. His benign nerdish looks undercut the fact that he is a great actor. I mean that sincerely, he's yet to disappoint me (I have avoided Keeping The Faith specifically for this reason). Ignoring the fact that Fight Club is still kicking around in the front parts of my brain as one of my absolute favourite films of the last ten years, and you might be able to see how I might have a hearty, entirely non-sexual love for the man (no, he doth not protesteth too much) :)

Understated is the word I think I'm looking for to describe his performance as former wonderboy FBI agent Will Graham. Which is okay. There are so many 'big' or semi-big names in this film that you know where the majority of the budget went. Anyway, you can also see how unbalanced this film could be with the desire to give all these people ample screen time. I'm talking about
scenery-fucker Hopkins obviously as Lecter, Philip Seymour Hoffman as sleazy tabloid reporter Freddie Loundes, Ralph Fiennes as the primary loon Francis Dollarhyde, Emily Watson as some blind girl, Mary Louise Parker as Graham's white trash wife, Harvey Keitel in the throwaway Jack Crawford role.

They make Lecter a character again, as opposed to a charicature. I can't stress enough how much of a difference it makes. He personally seems like he's pulled his head in, so to speak, which helps matters significantly.

And yet it still is unbalanced. The primary "problem" in the two films, being Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon is that there is a delicate balancing act to be worked out between having your primary charismatic scene-stealer on screen, being Lecter, and your other less refined but far messier psychopaths fucking things up, being, respectively, Buffalo Bill and the Tooth Fairy. Jeez, that really reads as an amusing sentence.

Anyway, it requires a complex balancing act. Silence of the Lambs was able to balance it and profit from the A / B story structure. Red Dragon has the same structure, but it is somewhat less successful. The transitions between the 'stories' is in some instances jarring and disconcerting, or at least clumsy in its execution.

All the same, it does serve up a pretty sick fucking story. Ralph Fiennes does a sickeningly good job as Dollarhyde. Very disconcerting and odd. There is nothing glamorous or ironically amusing about his portrayal of the family-murdering Tooth Fairy, he comes across as a deeply disturbed individual that does his thing for no justifiable reason, but with a frightening level of compulsion. The script taps back in to the classical allusions of the original book, and incorporates them fairly well.

The obsession with the William Blake poetry and paintings serves as the sick salad dressing to the smorgasbord of fun that ensues. One of my favourite scenes is certainly where Dollarhyde consumes an original Blake drawing to both rid himself of and maximise his fetish for the Red Dragon concept.

It's disturbing shit, to be sure. The pathologies represented are peremptorily explained but rarely simplified to any great extent. In the opening scenes of the film we are privy to the thought processes of Lecter, who decides to murder a classical musician because his flute playing is substandard (flute playing is not a euphemism), and later on we are brought in to the thinking of
a tormented individual who believes that by murdering families it will trigger a transformation from which he can cease being a pathetic human and become a transcendent being.

This shit isn't new. It's passe, it's commonplace to a certain extent. Plenty of people believe that the whole serial killer thing, regardless of their motivations, is totally played out and has been done to death, so to speak. Allow me to burst a few bubbles here: it's never going to go away. Audiences and readers are always going to be entranced by this sort of stuff. And with good reason. The primary reason is the fact that hopefully the vast majority of us know and feel how inherently wrong it is to torture and kill people, for whatever reason and regardless of the justifications. I take it as a heartening fact that people are alternately thrilled and horrified by it.

The day that we accept it as commonplace is the day that human civilisation utterly goes down the gurgler.

By the same token, I am not a fan of the idealisation of serial killer characters by any stretch of the imagination. This film wisely makes both of the Big Bads freaks of the highest order, yet I doubt it was calculated. It just happened.

Fiennes is very good in the role. As an actor I have believed for the longest time that he excels in playing protagonists that are not sympathetic. Here is is a freak of the highest order who says and does very freaky things, but they always seem believable in the context of the character. I can also understand why a blowjob from Emily Watson would cause him pause in his murderous ways :)

The police procedural aspects work reasonably well, in terms of tracking down the Tooth Fairy. The other, better counterpoint is the idea that the relationship between Graham and Lecter works as an interesting counterpoint with the relationship he has with Clarice Starling in Lambs. In Lambs he has a weird mindfuck - protective relationship with Starling. In Red Dragon he admires Graham but also wants to bring torment to the guys life in the worst way because the guy was cluey enough / unlucky enough to catch him and initiate his incarceration. It's not really a love hate relationship, it's more of a "I want to see your family raped and murdered" kind of vibe, which has the (creatively) beneficial effect of doing away with the bullshit sentimentilisation of Lecter's character which I appreciate.

On that note, somehow, gods only know how, the director manages to coax Hopkins down from that ego precipice that he's been operating on for the longest time and gets him to play a real character. Well done, I say. It's not entirely the all-knowing almost preternaturally perceptive Lecter from Lambs, but at least it's not the ludicrously omniscient Lecter from Hannibal,
who perversely ended up seeming dumber than that guy who asks you for change after smearing filth on your windscreen at an intersection.

One word of advice though, it's just something that it came to mind: on the page, and in a screenwriter's squirrely head, the word "awe", spelled like that, makes sense. Reading the word "awe" conveys the expected meaning. But having a character speak the word out loud does not, not matter how you try, work. It just don't fucking well work. When someone literally says "awe",
no matter their level of acting skill or the accent they're using, it doesn't sound scary. It actually sounds funny. Remember, writers and sub-standard screenwriters of the future, 'awe' doesn't work as dialogue. It makes someone sound like they've just received an ice dildo in a most uncomfortable place.

In some ways this film looks like it was made for television almost to a greater extent than Manhunter was at the time. It's competently handled, but to use a term that is usually used in an insulting sense, it is often workmanlike. It suits the story. I thought it worked well, considering the source material, which is sensationalist at best. The cinematographer, Dante Spinotti is constrained by the choice of local, but he gets to do almost as good a job here as he did in Manhunter, without making it look like an episode of Miami Vice.

So what, hey? So what do you care. I'm sure you role your eyes at this stuff, knowing that it is a franchise film, despite what the people involved in the film say. Of course the primary motivation for remaking Red Dragon (again) is money. But, and this is going to gall you, they managed to make a decent film of it, in my estimation better than what any of us expected, and they managed on top of that to make a compelling, uncomfortable (though admittedly conventional) film.

I say this as faint praise, admittedly, but this film was far superior to the pretentious load of bollocks that was Hannibal.

The story was still inane at certain points, but it just felt more compelling / disturbing, and the performances and writing were far more suitable. There are probably a whole host of reasons why this film shouldn't have worked. Perhaps you shouldn't underestimate the power of one of Emily Watson's blind girl blowjobs, eh? :)

7 flaming hacks glued to a wheelchair out of 10

"Ah yes Dr. Chillton. Gruesome isn't he? Fumbles at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle." - Red Dragon