Red Dragon (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I can't muster up much enthusiasm to talk about this excellent film, first because so much has already been written about it and the other entries in the Hannibal Lecter series (the MRQE has 209 articles on this film alone), and second because I've already discussed the most interesting plot elements in an earlier review. You see, this is actually the second time that the novel Red Dragon has been brought to the screen. The first time was in 1986 in a Michael Mann film called Manhunter. Since the two films have virtually the same plot, you can get a basic summary from my comments on Manhunter.


Mary-Louise Parker is seen braless.

Marguerite MacIntyre is topless as one of the victims.

Ralph Fiennes is naked, seen clearly from the rear as well as a brief frontal.

Red Dragon could be considered a remake of Manhunter, I suppose, or it could be more accurately called a second film from the same novel. In some cases, the dialogue is equal to Manhunter verbatim. In other cases, notably the beginning end ending, complete scenes have been added which are in neither the theatrical version of Manhunter nor the expanded director's cut. I liked the new beginning and ending in Red Dragon. I have always felt that Manhunter ended rather abruptly, and so I welcomed the fact that Red Dragon extends the denouement a bit with a very clever and tense post script. It is a bit "Hollywood", but it is slick.

The new beginning is just plain excellent. It starts with a few minutes in the life of Dr. Lecter before his capture, and that scene is mediocre, a rather high camp presentation in the elegant grand guignol style of Hannibal, the previous Lecter film. The next scene, however, is a beautiful presentation of the showdown between Agent Graham and Dr. Lecter, which nearly led to death for both of them. The edge is razor-sharp in this scene with excellent pacing from the director, some macabre imagination, and acting from two absolute masters of character, Sir Tony Hopkins and Edward Norton. Very impressive is the fact that Hopkins and Norton manage to show the audience that the evil genius Dr Lecter knows Graham is about to finger Lecter in the case on which they had been collaborating, even though Graham himself has no such awareness. 

That scene set the table beautifully, and provided us with some background in a very interesting way, which allowed us no understand viscerally why Graham feared Lecter, not just because we heard him or Lecter say so, but because we saw Lecter's destructive power with our own eyes, and felt what Graham felt.

Manhunter is a terrific movie, but it is more about style and atmosphere than narrative. To be more precise, it is more about Michael Mann than it is about Hannibal Lecter and the Red Dragon. Every scene drips with the kind of stylistic touches that mark Mann's work: the single musical chord dying out in the background, the layered staircases, the rock score, the ominous and hollow line delivery, the unexpected feeling of solitude in a crowded urban area. It might easily be a big screen version of Miami Vice. Dr Lecter's cell, for example, is all white and brightly-lit, and his clothing is white, allowing the few colored elements on screen to pop to our attention.  It's as if he were imprisoned in the Art Deco district. There are very few items to be seen anywhere. Rooms, even streets, tend to be empty except for a few key items which are necessary for the plot and visual impact. The staging is minimalist. The acting from Agent Graham is intense and unsmiling. He is a man carrying the world on his shoulders.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • The Director's Edition set contains an extra disc of features, including:

  • Brett Ratner's video diary

  • The Leeds' house crime scene: experts in the field of forensic science help the filmmakers construct a realistic crime scene

  • Visual effects featurette

  • A behind-the-scenes look at how the burning wheelchair stunt was shot

  • Screen and film tests

  • Makeup application featurette

  • Brett Ratner's untitled student film

  • Storyboards to final feature comparisons

  • Plus these additional features:

  • Renowned FBI profiler John Douglas builds Lecter's criminal file

  • "Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer," hosted by John Douglas

  • A look at Lecter's FBI file and case history

  • Anthony Hopkins discusses his most famous character

  • "The Making of Red Dragon"

  • Deleted scenes, alternate versions of scenes, and extended scenes with optional commentary

  • Music score commentary with composer Danny Elfman

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

Red Dragon's director, Brett Ratner, went about things in a completely different way. He allowed visual imagination from his design people, but he tried for a more realistic approach except for Lecter's prison cell, the medieval design of which was dictated by Silence of the Lambs. Rooms are decorated to look the way they might really have looked, not to create a certain style. The background music stayed out of the way as much as possible. Agent Graham acted less like a man carrying the world than just a nice guy who couldn't turn down a distasteful assignment. Edward Norton's greatest skill as an actor is to make you believe that he could be one of us, a real person, in a larger than life situation. Manhunter's William Peterson approached Agent Graham with more of the earnest purposefulness of an expressionistic character icon. Peterson was a cop with a grave responsibility. Norton was our next door neighbor who just happened to be a cop with a grave responsibility.

Ratner came up with a truly exceptional cast. In addition to Hopkins and Norton, he landed Ralph Fiennes as the other lead (who is better at playing a disturbed humorless personality?). The small roles are filled out by such stalwarts as Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all of whom deliver as close to perfection as is possible in this imperfect world.

Red Dragon is a terrific, underrated film. Silence of the Lambs won a bunch of award-season hardware, and is currently rated #22 of all time at IMDb. Red Dragon won no major awards, but is nearly as good, and is better in some ways. Manhunter is also acclaimed by many, yet Red Dragon is riveting even if you know the Manhunter story by heart. I saw Red Dragon in the theatrical release, and I have watched Manhunter three times, including last night. Yet I still watched Red Dragon frame by frame last night, enjoying it as much as I did the first time, admiring the skillful management of tension and the characterizations. It is the work of genre masters at the top of their game.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4, BBC 3/5. Entertainment Weekly B-.

  • General UK consensus: two and a half stars. Guardian 4/10, BBC 4/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.4/10 (Manhunter is 7.2, Silence of the Lambs is 8.5, Hannibal 6.3). 
  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $78 million for production, and the distribution/advertising costs are estimated around $30 million. It did 36 million in its opening weekend, stayed at #1 for an additional week, and finished at $93 million. That was OK, but if this one had been released first instead of Hannibal (which did $165 million), I believe it would have topped $200 million. The Silence of the Lambs did $130 million, and poor neglected Manhunter only $8 million.
  • Exit interviews: Cinema Score. Excellent. A-. Nothing lower than a B+. Silence of the Lambs was also an A-, but a slightly stronger A-. They performed identically with younger and older audience, but Silence was stronger with the 21-34 group, A to B+. Manhunter, a B overall, performed as well as the other two with women, but was rated lower by men. Hannibal was only a C+, having managed to amass a superlative box office based on pent-up expectation.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a B. It's just about as good a scary crime thriller as has ever been brought to the screen. Obviously, it can't duplicate the freshness of The Silence of the Lambs, but I believe that if this one had come first, we might now think of Silence as an inferior sequel. Tremendous DVD as well.

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