Sometimes it’s fun to watch multiple film versions of the same story and see how they stack up against each other. Usually it makes sense to do this with canonical stories-for-the-ages: Hamlet has dozens of film iterations, Jane Eyre similarly has a lot as of 2011, and there’ll be new adaptations of Oliver Twist so long as we have new media to adapt them in. It’s fun to see how different filmmakers approach the stories, how they reconfigure the emotional beats, how they revise the characters.
And sometimes, out of some perverse instinct, you watch both film versions of glorified airplane reading like Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon in a short span of time. To be blunt, Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002) are painfully similar, lining up scene-for-scene almost exactly, with basically the same approach to the plot, characters, and even the moments of suspense and terror. Only a few significant differences exist between the two of them; the most relevant is that Manhunter is a good movie while Red Dragon, despite boasting a cast of impressive names, is a bad one.
The structure of Red Dragon resembles its belated sequel, the much more famous Silence of the Lambs: a serial killer is on the tear, so the authorities bargain with the incarcerated Dr. Hannibal Lecter for psychological clues about the killer. As with Clarice in the sequel, FBI agent Will Graham—who originally caught Lecter but paid a great price—gets in too deep, imperiling his life, limb, and sanity. Here, the killer isn’t Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill of “I’d fuck me” fame, but Francis Dolarhyde, dubbed “the Tooth Fairy” by the press, who kills two whole families and puts mirrors in his dead victims’ eyes so they can watch him rape the mothers. Ghastly stuff, to put it lightly.
He’s also obsessed with William Blake’s bizarre paintings of a “Great Red Dragon,” hence the novel’s name. Dolarhyde, who’s both a bloodthirsty serial killer and a mild-mannered film processing technician, is played by Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes in the ’86 and ’02 versions respectively, and their performances hint at the wider divides between the two films. Fiennes lays it on pretty thick as a disfigured, split-personality manchild who’s admittedly very creepy, while Noonan adeptly walks the line between raving psychopath and shy loser.
You sense that he just wants to be the Red Dragon because, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, he gets no respect (and is mentally ill, and was abused by his mother); at least now in the throes of his bloodlust, he’s “BECOMING” something. As Graham discovers, Dolarhyde wants to be desired and even revered. As he tells the sleazy journalist Freddy Lounds before killing him, “You owe me awe.” Although Fiennes captures something demonic and brutally physical in his performance, Noonan’s absolutely the superior villain—he’s so consumed by his own delusions that he sees his ritualized murders not as destruction, but as transformation.
He’s also frighteningly believable as an innocuous if eccentric coworker, a side of the character that doesn’t quite come out in Fiennes. Alas, Fiennes is also the best thing about Red Dragon, a film which (like his performance) is persistently marred by unsubtlety. Just compare, for example, Danny Elfman’s scare-chord-laden score with Michael Rubini and The Reds’ synthy, atmospheric music for Manhunter. With every creative decision, Ratner and company go the pedestrian, by-the-numbers route, making it feel like a generic police procedural with Hannibal Lecter tossed in.
Speaking of whom, even Anthony Hopkins’ performance just feels like a rehash of his iconic work in Silence of the Lambs, with all the dry wit gone from his mind games and bon mots. The whole cast seems to be sleepwalking through Red Dragon, including stalwarts like Harvey Keitel, vaguely paternal as FBI higher-up Jack Crawford, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the oily Lounds. Red Dragon may trounce Manhunter in terms of total star power, but it squanders any and all promise with its dull execution. It ends up as nothing more than Manhunter Redux, minus all the stylistic quirks that elevated the original in the first place.
Hell, I’d even go so far as to say that Brian Cox makes a much better Hannibal than Hopkins in Red Dragon. He’s coy, he’s funny, and he’s deep inside Will’s embattled head. Manhunter is a potentially generic thriller firing on all cylinders, with every supporting actor and directorial choice working together to give the film its grotesque, even hallucinatory charm. It’s a weird movie, from Noonan’s Dolarhyde to the Iron Butterfly-filled climax to the disturbing imagery that pops up here and there—and this is the version that doesn’t bother to show the killer’s giant, freaky tattoo.
The words I’d use to describe Red Dragon, on the other hand, would be “sullen,” “icky,” “retread.” Its only real edges over the original are 1) that it goes into greater depth on Dolarhyde’s Blake obsession (while missing the point of Blake completely) and 2) that it prominently displays Ralph Fiennes’ naked ass. In every other respect, Manhunter takes the delicious cake. This may not be a groundbreaking assertion (a Brett Ratner movie… that sucks?!), but hey, at least I was thorough! Not only is Manhunter surprisingly good, but it’s infectious; it sticks in your head just like Will Graham’s understanding of the killer sticks in his. Just the sound of Tom Noonan’s voice by itself, as he berates Lounds: “Before me, you are a slug in the sun…” It’s chilling.