Taken from the pages of Thomas Harris' terrifying first novel in the trilogy Red Dragon is certainly a twisted psychological encounter of the best kind. The pacing of the film is unstoppable racing from one scene to the next in hopes of trying to stop a serial killer. Ex-FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) known for his expertise in delving into the minds of the madmen he is trying to catch quits the Bureau after a messy run-in with a supposed ally who turns out to be the mother of all serial killers--Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Years later living a quiet existence with his wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and son in Florida Will is sought after once again by his former boss Agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel). Seems there's a new serial killer in town known as The Tooth Fairy for his gruesome use of teeth in killing two families. The Tooth Fairy is really a quiet man named Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) who has a cleft palate a dilapidated mansion and thinks he is a reincarnated William Blake painting called The Red Dragon. (Don't we all?) Graham gets sucked in easily (as he is wont to do) but ultimately needs a little help from his now-incarcerated old friend. Obviously Graham is more than reluctant to have to confront the man who tried to kill him but his desire to catch Dolarhyde is greater. And Lecter is one of the best forensic psychiatrists there is. Let the psychotic cat and mouse game begin.
Each actor hits the nail on the head but honestly with a cast like this one it would be very hard to go wrong. Starting with Norton as Graham the actor infuses his character with the right amount of intellect charm and fear without ever overplaying one of those attributes. Of course we mustn't forget Norton's own skill at playing the psychotic in Primal Fear earning him an Oscar nomination. He is an actor of amazing talent. Fiennes also steps up to the plate as Dolarhyde but it isn't the rantings of a crazy man that grabs your attention. It's the quiet tender moments he has with his girlfriend (and we say "girlfriend" loosely because it's as close as to one as this freak can get). Played exquisitely by Emily Watson she's blind and cannot see what Dolarhyde has become so playing God with her is useless to him. The two stage-trained actors get to the heart of the relationship without a hint of effort. Instead Dolarhyde can just be with her and she almost makes him want to stop his insane going-ons. Almost. Then there's Hopkins. Winning an Oscar for portraying Lecter in Silence of the Lambs Hopkins simply is Lecter. There isn't anyone else who can play him. But what more can an actor do with a character he's played three times? Plenty as Hopkins proves in Dragon. This time it's the relationship he has with Graham that gives a new twist to Lecter. We see in Hopkins' eyes he may not like Will as much as he did Clarice Starling (come on everyone knows he was in love with her) but he respects Will. That's the difference and handled subtly by the British actor. Still now that the trilogy is done perhaps Hopkins may be able to put aside those cannibalistic impulses for good.
Fans of this Harris novel should feel comfortable with this rendition. Directed by Brett Ratner and adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally (who won an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs) it's a taut psychological roller coaster ride. Luckily Dragon is more about mind games and less about the gore than Hannibal. Ratner knows his stuff and delivers a powerful film. There have been other movie incarnations of Harris' novel particularly the 1985 Michael Mann version Manhunter but many fans felt Mann's film didn't truly capture the book even if it was well-made. Of course Mann also didn't have Hopkins playing his Lecter (although British actor Brian Cox did a heck of a good job). This is one of the keys to making Red Dragon great but it's also what keeps it from being better than Lambs. The story is different granted but it's territory we've seen covered before. Lecter in Lambs simply horrified us and the film was chilling all the way through. Dragon actually has more heart and is much more about relationships than about cold-blooded killing. The journey Ratner takes us on through serial-killer land is certainly terrifying but maybe it would have been a little different and even more intriguing to concentrate even more on its emotional aspects.