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The Curse of the "Red Dragon"

The remake of Michael Mann's 1986 "Manhunter" serves up--if you can believe it--too much Hannibal Lecter.

12:00 AM, Oct 4, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IF YOU'RE GOING to remake a movie, you'd better have a good reason. In 1995, Harrison Ford did a remake of "Sabrina" because, at 53, he wanted to see if he could transition from action roles into romantic comedy (by way of an answer, his next two films were "The Devil's Own" and "Air Force One"). Last year Steven Soderbergh remade "Ocean's Eleven" because he had directed three difficult movies ("Traffic," "Erin Brockovich," and "The Limey") in two years and wanted to try a romp. This weekend we have a remake of "Manhunter," the movie "Red Dragon," whose raison d'être is this business nugget: In 2001, the sequel to "Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal," opened to $58 million on a non-holiday weekend--the highest opening-weekend ever for an R-rated movie.

Eager to capitalize on the continuing popularity of Anthony Hopkins's performance as Hannibal Lecter, Dino De Laurentiis, who controls the Thomas Harris property, and his Universal Studios partners, cast about for another excuse to get Hopkins's Lecter on screen. The problem was that "Hannibal" is the final chapter of the Lecter saga. The only way to give audiences more Lecter was to go back and remake the first Lecter movie, "Manhunter."

"Manhunter," directed in 1986 by Michael Mann, featured Brian Cox in the Lecter role, and only for five or six minutes at that. It's a fine little movie, long on atmospherics and short on violence and gore. Mann's direction is sure-handed and occasionally dazzling. As FBI investigator Will Graham, William Petersen is interesting and brooding, prefiguring his work on the TV series "C.S.I." The supporting cast is quite good, with strong turns from Joan Allen and Dennis Farina. And as Lecter, Cox is excellent. He's oily and playful and his genius is of the raw horsepower variety. Today, only the score cries out to be redone--the '80s pop synthesizer music feels dated and grating.

But now, a mere 20 months after "Hannibal," they have replaced "Manhunter" with "Red Dragon." (And this really is a replacement more than a remake. When the DVD box sets of the trilogy are put out next spring, "Manhunter" will be disappeared, and "Red Dragon" will be the official film version of the book.)

The big challenge for the filmmakers on "Red Dragon" was to turn a tale with a Lecter cameo into a Hannibal Lecter vehicle. The first part of this transformation was easy: They brought in Hopkins to reprise what has become, unfortunately, his signature role. The second, more difficult trick, involved reworking the story so that Lecter could, at every possible opportunity, leap into the foreground.

For example, in "Manhunter," Graham recounts how he captured Lecter in a quiet conversation with his son. In "Red Dragon," the movie opens with Lecter serving an unpleasant flutist for dinner, and then shows us the fateful confrontation between Graham and the good doctor. In another instance, a telephone conversation between Graham and Lecter from "Manhunter" becomes a prolonged, face-to-face encounter in "Red Dragon."

Yet more winds up as less. A riveting scene from "Manhunter," where the feds discover a note in Lecter's cell and have to quickly analyze and replace it, plays out as a fascinating look at how a crime lab operates under pressure. Lecter is merely an off-camera presence, whose specter serves as an invisible stop-watch. In "Red Dragon," the focus of the scene is shifted to the FBI's efforts to fool Lecter. The investigative intensity is drained so that we can have long looks at Hopkins, straight-jacketed and with his famous face mask in place.

And while it may sound heretical, the Cox Lecter is superior to what Hopkins has become. Cox is dry and menacingly sarcastic, telling Graham in one memorable moment, "Oh, God's a champ." In "Red Dragon," Hopkins's mannerisms get the better of him--he often looks like Anthony Hopkins playing the "Saturday Night Live" version of Hannibal Lecter. Also, he isn't the spry 54-year-old he was in "Silence of the Lambs" and this time out he looks a bit like an alabaster sausage in his tight, white institutional clothes.

"Red Dragon" is, at every turn, a commercial endeavor. Nothing wrong with that. But it's a pity that this money-making juggernaut is going to replace a smaller, quieter, and superior movie.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.