‘Red Dragon’: mostly smoke, no fire

Though “Red Dragon” may have been released three weeks ago, timeliness doesn’t really matter in this review, since it’s a) a prequel and b) a remake. So technically, it’s a rehash of a rehash.

Brett Ratner, director of such fantastic and memorable films as “Rush Hour” and “The Family Man” (you know, that terrible Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni Christmas flick from last year), joins the “Silence of the Lambs” bandwagon after 1999’s “Hannibal,” which was a useless gore-feast. This time, it’s a remake of Michael Mann’s 1986 “Manhunter,” a movie no one remembers and which, therefore, must be remade. Thankfully for us, “Red Dragon” is not nearly as bad of a rehash as “Hannibal,” despite the fact that it still is an excuse for the usual famous people to make money off it. In this case, it’s Dino de Laurentis, the producer who bought the rights to “Hannibal” yet failed to enlist Jodie Foster (the original Clarice Sterling from “Silence of the Lambs”) or the original director, Jonathan Demme.

Though “Hannibal” was a success, audiences did notice it was quite a step down in terms of quality from the original, and Ratner seems to have taken this into consideration in his direction “Red Dragon.” The movie is much more grounded in terms of gore (though, like the two previous movies, it still has its share of senseless violence and allusions to, well, eating people) and is more suspenseful than “Hannibal,” hearkening back to the original appeal of “Silence of the Lambs.”

However, the desire to make it unlike “Hannibal” has created a problem: at times this movie is too much like its predecessor. When you strip it down to essentials, the movie is a remake of “Silence of the Lambs”: FBI agent has to go ask creepy homicidal maniac for advice on how to catch other homicidal maniac. There’s this whole “I’ve seen this before. . .” aura in the movie, and by that, I don’t mean Michael Mann’s picture.

Here’s the schtick: FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) used to work with forensic psychologist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, as always), but it turned out that Lecter was a homicidal/cannibal/insane person and thus, Graham arrested him. Graham has now retired and builds boats because the stress was too much.

However, his former boss (Harvey Keitel) wants him to help out in catching a new serial killer, the “Tooth Fairy” (Ralph Fiennes), because Graham’s the best at catching loonies. Isn’t that always the way in Hollywood? You retire, but since you’re the best and apparently, the only one in the world adept at robbing banks/murdering people/catching murderers/writing advertising jingles, someone always asks you to come back from retirement?

Anyway, of course Graham accepts, but he has some trouble figuring how he’s going to go about catching the guy. Turns out that behind every great FBI agent, there’s one great smart-ass cannibal who speaks in riddles, so he has to turn to Hannibal for help. So the rest of the movie we go between Lecter “helping” Graham with pseudo-clues and us seeing the Tooth Fairy go berserk about the so-called Red Dragon and the woman he seems to fall in love with, Reba (Emily Watson).

The movie keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, that’s true, though the action sort of peaks at about three-quarters through before trying to pick up at the end. There’s a whole lot of Hannibal, which separates this film from any other serial killer movie. Hopkins’ performance is central to the movie – though Fiennes presents us with a compelling – and scarier – performance as the Red Dragon. It seems that, either because it’s two movies into the series already, or because he’s in jail, Hannibal isn’t as scary anymore. Or at least, not in comparison to Fiennes’ character, who is really everywhere and has nothing to lose. So while Lecter seems evil and whatnot, he’s not really the scariest person there.

But this movie is not “Silence of the Lambs.” “Red Dragon” is competent, yet lacks a certain brilliance. One could even say it tries too hard to be the original. It has a cast replete with talented actors, a production designer that seems bent on having everything either red or dark (or both because it’s, like, spooky) and a score recorded by one of the best composers in Hollywood, Danny Elfman – yet there are some music cues that are very cliché: “character opens door to dark room; cue scary music! Really scary!”

“Red Dragon” is good entertainment for your buck, but don’t expect to be knocked off your feet like with “Silence of the Lambs.” Thankfully, however, you can expect to succeed in holding down your lunch, a feat made impossible after watching “Hannibal.”