Manhunter – 1986
Red Dragon – 2002
Director Michael Mann
Starring William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan
Director Brett Ratner
Screenplay Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Heald
Screenplay Ted Tally
Brett Ratner gets a lot of crap. Mainly for being the guy who will direct anything Hollywood gives him the opportunity to direct. His take on the third X-Men film is roundly criticized, even though he didn’t vary from the comics any less than Bryan Singer had. His first big sin, aside from making the Rush Hour films a fun, vapid success, is the remake of the film adaptation of Red Dragon. The first filmed version, Manhunter, bombed at the box office, but had always enjoyed critical success because of the connection to Michael Mann. Mann’s Miami Vice, a big success in the 80’s, gives all the flash and style present in that show, while ramping up the creepiness.
Then came Silence of the Lambs. The owner of the rights to the Lecter name, Dino De Laurentiis, lent the rights of the name to the filmmakers gratis. He had no concept that the second adapted book of Thomas Harris had any potential to make money. Everyone knows how that turned out. The success of Silence of the Lambs created a demand for another Lecter film with the actor that won an Oscar portraying him. De Laurentiis was not about to let the rights go for free this time. In fact they were the ones that ended up producing this time.
That first sequel, Hannibal, was a solid film with the uneven casting replacement of Julianne Moore as Clarice. As good an actress as she is, Moore had none of the talents that Jodie Foster had in the role. Nonetheless, the film scored at the box office, leaving the demand for more Lecter as fevered as ever.
Hopkins was game for more work as his famous alter-ego, and apparently Anthony Heald was available to play Dr. Chilton, so Red Dragon was rushed into production, coming out about 20 months after Hannibal. It was not the huge success that was its two Hopkins’ predecessors, but it was a very big film for a fall release.
Having recently watched the first two seasons of the Bryan Fuller television series and waiting for the third, I felt that now was the perfect time to jump into the series again from the beginning. As a result, I watched both versions of the Red Dragon story and decided to give it a side by side comparison. This breakdown will approach it’s review in several categories including but not limited to cast/characters, director, screenwriter/story. I have a feeling my determination of value may differ slightly from most, but I am cool with that.
Hannibal Lecter / Hannibal Lecktor: Anthony Hopkins vs. Bryan Cox
This is an easy one, if you understand the character. Hopkins was in his 3rd go round with Hannibal and he plays it to near perfection. This version of Lecter is mad as hell, not so resigned as his portrayal in Silence…and it dovetails nicely with the continuing development of the character. He is envious of his counterpart Will Graham, but too much interested in psychosis to pass up an opportunity to help. It’s a major thing for the character that we get the prologue with the “missing” player of the orchestra, as it presents Lecter more accurately to the books. Lecter was a killer, but he was anything but a desperate random killer of college girls, as portrayed in Mann’s story.
Brian Cox has a lot going against him in Manhunter. Not the least the choice of cell and lighting, as well as the goofy changing of the name to Lecktor. All of this shows that the filmmakers did not really understand what they had their hands on when they purchased this property. The emphasis of the story at that time is on Dolarhyde. Harris had not fully fleshed out the character of Lector. If they had, the result may have been different. Still, he does hold the camera with his gaze, and the viewer is entranced by that remorseless voice. Lecktor is nowhere near as scary as Lector, in total because I have a hard time feeling fear when everyone is wearing Miami Vice colors.
Edge to Red Dragon
Will Graham: Edward Norton vs. William Peterson
If one is not careful, they give this one away too easily. Edward Norton is an endlessly talented actor who has never consistently approached his potential. If he wanted to, he could have knocked his Will Graham out of the park. As it stands, he hits a solid double off the wall. His Graham is vulnerable and intelligent, obsessed and aloof, detailed and derailed. We get the benefit of seeing the injury he suffers at the hands of Lecter, and we also have the privilege of seeing Hopkins at his most engaged. Norton has a lot to hide when he meets him, and he does this with the verve of an unsure teenager standing up to someone he knows he is not better than. The Harris text feels much more natural coming from Norton’s Graham, and his brilliance mixed with a lack of strength is much more relatable. More than that, I buy him as much more curious and inquisitive.
William Peterson is a good actor. Of his work with Michael Mann, I have never been a fan. His Graham is not so much afraid for his family as his interested in explaining to them that sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Men in the Michael Mann universe don’t really know fear all too much. At least not leading men. Peterson’s Graham spends a lot of time berating his unknown serial killer with curse words and questions to the open air. The same lines that Norton uses, only this time they seem angry and aimless. His interactions with his wife Molly pale in comparison to Norton’s Graham. One is talking to an equal, the other is pacifying the weaker sex. None of this is Peterson’s fault. His style in other works have been much more flexible and varied. Here, he might as well be played by Don Johnson or Philip Michael Thomas, for all the time he spends looking off to the side of the scene.
Point to Red Dragon
Francis Dolarhyde vs. Francis Dollarhyde: Ralph Fiennes vs. Tom Noonan
Before he played Voldemort and after Amon Goeth, Fiennes tried to fill the simple shoes of Francis Dolarhyde. He gives the role every bit of method acting he can conjure up, but in the end, it feels like too much. It’s very much the definition of having an all-star at every position, much like they did with the earlier film. The movie needs room for the viewer to breathe and watch without preconceptions. Fiennes is serviceable in every way, but he exudes almost no menace, for some reason.
Noonan’s Dollarhyde, however is the very high point for Mann’s film. Even without the extensive background given to Fienne’s Red Dragon, we know exactly what this beast is about from the moment we lay eyes on him. He is not at all a functioning part of society and very much someone to fear. Before I ever watched Mann’s film all the way through (took me a few times before I had ready access to media), I knew the movie was more his than anyone else’s. His power is clear, even if his character’s transformation is rushed through, compared to Fiennes, who is given every benefit of Harris’ and Tally’s writing to grow more thoroughly.
Point to Manhunter
Jack Crawford: Harvey Keitel vs. Dennis Farina
This one boils down to personal choice as much as anything. Both actors are enjoyable in their roles, to a certain degree. They bring what they have to the role. Keitel brings Brooklyn, New York to everything he does, and while he’s always got a strong presence here, I kept expecting him to break off into some hyper-kinetic rant and go off on a shooting spree. And really, would it have been so expensive to bring back Scott Glenn?
Farina, on the other hand brings a Chicago menace to the role. It’s easy to picture Farina as a crooked cop playing outside the lines, as he was a cop for 18 years, up to the time when this film was being made. He is the easy choice for me as Jack Crawford, if you want solid police procedural material. Let it be said, though, that neither player approaches Scott Glenn’s mastery of the role for Silence… nor Laurence Fishburne’s inventive take for the TV show.
Point to Manhunter
Molly Graham: Mary-Louise Parker vs. Kim Greist
Poor Kim Greist. She had the misfortune to be a woman in a Michael Mann directed story. Women in these spots are to be seen, mostly, and not heard too much. She makes good window dressing, to be sure, but as a person she is a few short of a six-pack. She seems sensible enough to be worried about her husband, but most of her questions or suggestions are hushed by her loving man of the house. She makes a good object of affection for their, son, too. The closest one can compare her too in-depth of character is, say, Shmi Skywalker from the first two Star Wars prequels.
Parker does not get much more screen time, and she’s shuttled around like cattle a bit two, but one only has to see her holding the gun for target practice in the middle of the film to know that she is trusted to do more than wait for Will to get the bad guy.
Big time point to Red Dragon.
Reba McClane: Emily Watson vs. Joan Allen
Extra props to seeing a really young Allen playing our blind damsel in distress. She, too is hindered by the Mann effect, but not as much as the plot cripples her performance. We get to see all of her scenes rushed into pretty much one night and a follow-up. Not much of it makes sense. She is an independent woman who has overcome her handicap, and she pretty much falls for the office weirdo after a ride home? Something tells me she might wait for the, say, 2nd date, perhaps? Her flailing around in the end while Iron Butterfly’s only hit blasts away looks a little like a random set director just told her to lean against the wall and wave the occasional arm.
Watson benefits from Ted Tally’s intelligent script. Simple things, like seeing her count steps and even waiting for the 2nd date. I think that Allen could have done every thing that Watson does, but she was never asked to. Also, it does not hurt the probability scale that Watson is visibly older and perhaps a little more willing to weigh the risks of her decisions. The likelihood that she spent more time with Dolarhyde, absorbing more information and maybe being a little more desperate is greater.
Easy point to Red Dragon.
Freddy Lounds: Hoffman vs. Lang
Given that it was because of this role in particular that I thought Stephen Lang was a horrible actor for years, this should be and is an easy victory for Hoffman. It balances out, though. It took me years to get over Hoffman’s annoying performance in Twister. Lang and the late Hoffman were supposed to play annoying characters, and both fit the bill. Hoffman’s Lounds is given more opportunity to flesh his character out, and he does a brilliant job of it. He is supposed to fall into the deep due to his hubris, but we see that he knows the risk he is taking, which makes why he is doing it more interesting. Lang just tips over into the abyss with no real clue.
Point to Red Dragon.
Fredrick Chilton: Anthony Heald vs. Benjamin Hendrickson
It takes one a much effort to figure out who or what Chilton is within the scheme of Manhunter. Mann misses the importance of the character by giving him absolutely zero nuance. This should be no surprise based on his handling of Freddy Lounds. In Mann’s hands he’s just another guy with a cigarette. Heald’s Chilton was one of the highlights for Silence of the Lambs, as Tally completely understands the smug ignorance he represents. They do a good job, for the most part, in fitting him into the second film. My only real complaint is a small one. As the movie is ending, we get a strong hint from Chilton that Lecter can expect a visit from Clarice Starling. That’s a little too cute to begin with. However, his hair and clothing style is somewhat different at that point from what it is in the classic film. Ratner should have avoided such an obvious effort to pander.
Point to Red Dragon, carried over from Silence of the Lambs.
Screenplay: Ted Tally vs. Michael Mann
If you are wondering who gets the point, you really haven’t been following along. It’s amazing to realize that these two takes on the same story are both 124 minutes long, yet contain such radically different amounts of information. Tally sticks so much closer to the source material that there are very few questions as to motivation or history.
Mann chose to ignore inconvenient aspects, making Lecktor a killer of “college girls” to bypass the moral complexity to Hannibal’s psychopathy. The result creates a void that Cox has to fill by sheer force of will. Hopkins benefits greatly from Tally’s translation of Harris’ dialogue and actions. How hard is it for Mann to show that Hannibal does not respond well to people being rude?
More than this, there is so much more plot and character development. Adding the original ending, the tattoo and hints about Dolarhyde’s Grandma, we are given context. With Mann, we get a lot of smoking and people looking away from the camera. Oh, and some yelling, too.
Huge point to Red Dragon.
Director: Brett Ratner vs. Michael Mann
Ratner is not real subtle, but he does not intentionally go out of his way to blow stuff up, Renny Harlin-style. His style is distinctly paint by numbers, but he has some nice flash and style.
Conversely, at this point, Mann was all about flash and style. His luck to get Tom Noonan in casting helped to add a real visceral element to a movie which otherwise is as muted as any episode of Miami Vice. It would take him several years to have the content catch up to the visuals, even if it only lasted briefly. The movie version of Miami Vice, Public Enemies and more recently, Blackhat make it clear that his tenuous touch with storytelling is on the wane.
Ratner’s done a lot of crap lately too. Somehow he got roped into doing Beverly Hills Cop IV. Likely because of his pals in Hollywood. It can’t be worse than Hercules, one would suspect.
Why is this debate important? For me it’s the demystification of Peterson and, more importantly, Mann. He is a little closer to Brett Ratner than he would like to admit. I have him on the downside of that equation, even.
To that end, and the end of this article, my ratings for both films:
Red Dragon (**** out of *****)
Manhunter (** out of *****)