Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Red Dragon

Year 8, Day 299 - 10/25/16 - Movie #2,477  

BEFORE: There's one more fictional doctor I need to cover before October ends - in addition to Doctors Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Moreau - and that's Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  Anthony Hopkins carries over from "The Elephant Man", obviously.  

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Manhunter" (Movie #583)

THE PLOT: A retired FBI agent with psychological gifts is assigned to help track down "The Tooth Fairy", a mysterious serial killer - aiding him is imprisoned criminal genius Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter.

AFTER: My relationship to the "Hannibal" films (based on the books of Thomas Harris) has been slow to develop.  Before starting this project, my wife convinced me to watch "The Silence of the Lambs", this would have been back in the late 1990's, and I probably caught "Hannibal" out of curiosity in 2004 or so, then I watched "Manhunter" in 2010.  So I'm good for a new film in the series every six years or so, which means I'm due.  In the meantime, the franchise has been kept alive with another film "Hannibal Rising" and an NBC series that ran for three seasons, which I did not watch.  (And now I've just learned that the 2nd half of season 3 essentially adapted the "Red Dragon" story, so I'm saving a bunch of time by watching this film tonight...)

Another reason for avoiding this film for so long is the fact that it was directed by Brett Ratner, who I knew back at NYU and had a massive argument with, over his refusal to show up at all when he was supposed to crew on my films.  Meanwhile he spent all of his time flirting with random women when he was supposed to be directing his own films - and I finally figured out that he was just there to get a degree, there was a high-profile job waiting for him directing rap videos, he just needed the diploma, and nothing else was important.  As such, he felt entitled and saw no reason to do any work that would help out anyone else in the class.  

I swore to never watch one of his films, but that only lasted until he directed one of the "X-Men" films, "The Last Stand", which is universally regarded as the worst "X-Men" film ever made, even worse than this year's "X-Men: Apocalypse".  But this is the year for me to get to some films that have been outstanding for a long time - this is also the year of sequels, reboots and remakes.  "Red Dragon" manages to simultaneously be a prequel (to "Silence of the Lambs") and a remake (of "Manhunter").  There was nothing really wrong with "Manhunter", except it made the mistake of being released before "The Silence of the Lambs", and featuring a different actor (Brian Cox) as Hannibal "Lecktor".  (It's now regarded a bit like the original "Casino Royale" with David Niven, that is to say, it's not officially part of the franchise.)  

But let's talk about shortcuts, because from where I stand, this film is full of them - and that fits perfectly with what I know about the director, and his driving purpose to avoid hard work.  Doing a remake is a big shortcut - you know in advance that the basic story will work as a film, plus you've already got a road map of the basic plot points, and possibly another director's mistakes to avoid as well.  The film's half-made before you even begin shooting, in a way.  

And then when I started looking for shortcuts, I saw them all over the place.  Using the tabloid journalist's article as the way that the serial killers find out that Will Graham is working the case? That's a shortcut.  Showing us the history of the Tooth Fairy as a collage of newspaper articles in the opening credits?  Shortcut.  Pulling nearly the EXACT same fake-out with "Who's at the door?" that they did in "Silence of the Lambs"?  HUGE shortcut.  Having things take place within close proximity to other things, to cut down on the travel time?  And for not allowing travel time for the things that DON'T take place in the same city, giving the illusion that people are essentially teleporting across the country?  Shortcut, shortcut, shortcut.  (To be fair, a lot of shows use that last gimmick, like "CSI: Cyber" and "Criminal Minds", but on the latter, at least they show the agents on their private jet each week).  

I get that there's an attempt to display Lecter and FBI agent Graham as "two sides of the same coin" or whatever, but on some level, I'm just not buying that their abilities are the same - one analyzes crime scenes because it's his job, and the other one analyzes crime scenes for sick pleasure - this feels like another shortcut.  While it's true that you might need to think like a bank robber to be a security expert, I'm not sure that you have to think like an insane serial killer in order to catch one.  This feels like yet another shortcut, to imply that analyzing murder scenes is in danger of having an adverse effect on Graham, if it hasn't already.  I would wager that the CSI-style approach to solving crime (as seen when the FBI team analyzes the Tooth Fairy's note) is much more common, and much more effective than this whole "getting inside the killer's head" nonsense.  

Like, how can we expect a sane man (Graham) to follow the logic of an insane person (Tooth Fairy), who thinks that gouging his victims' eyes out will help them "see"? And this is another example of how forensic work is sometimes portrayed as mystical, as when someone "reads" a scene, it goes beyond Sherlock Holmes-style observation to a technique that is more visceral or subconscious, and again, I'd wager that the basic building blocks of fingerprints, traces and paper trails are much more effective than gut instincts and sudden flashes of inspiration.

However, the end result is something that's truly scary, in the chilling serial-killer sense, and probably the only movie this month that I can say that about, after focusing so much on the ridiculous Frankenstein films from Universal's later years, and cartoonish fare like "Hotel Transylvania 2", and idiotic films like "Vampire's Kiss".  It really, really pains me to give this film an acceptable score - but when placed adjacent to "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and "The Elephant Man", I've got to give it credit for at least doing what it set out to do.  

OK, now for the NITPICK POINTS: the opening scene shows Lector entertaining dinner guests from the symphony board, and there's a casual mention of the fact that the orchestra's flute player is missing.  If you're familiar with Hannibal's history, it's not too hard to guess that the missing man might be found on the guests' plates, and this is almost played for laughs.  But the guests are willing to eat the appetizer without knowing exactly what it contains, and in these modern times, when people have all sorts of food allergies, that's just not going to fly.  Chances are that at least one person at the table would demand to know whether the dish contains any nuts, shellfish, dairy or gluten.  

Also starring Edward Norton (last seen in "Frida"), Ralph Fiennes (last seen in "Spectre"), Harvey Keitel (last seen in "The Pick-Up Artist"), Emily Watson (last seen in "The Theory of Everything"), Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Nobody's Fool"), Mary-Louise Parker (last seen in "RED 2"), Anthony Heald (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge"), Frank Whaley (last seen in "Swimming With Sharks"), Ken Leung (last seen in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"), Frankie Faison (last seen in "Betsy's Wedding"), with cameos from Bill Duke (last seen in "American Gigolo"), Lalo Schifrin, Mary Beth Hurt (last seen in "Young Adult") and the voice of Ellen Burstyn (last seen in "The Exorcist").

RATING: 6 out of 10 antique wheelchairs 

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