Surely the best suspense film of the 1990s was "The Silence of the Lambs," with a superlative script from the Thomas Harris novel, deceptively simple direction by Jonathan Demme in the best Hitchcock mode, two lead actors who inhabited their characters without a slip (one of them the breathtaking, delicious conception of Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins) and of course the very best last line in ages. Ridley Scott's followup film "Hannibal" was a Grand Guignol without suspense, and other than the final dinner-party scene was without either horror or wit.
Now comes "Red Dragon," the remake of Michael Mann's 1986 "Manhunter," the first of Harris's Hannibal Lecter books to be filmed. I saw "Manhunter" after seeing "Red Dragon," and was disappointed in the slackness of the direction and the needless use of slow motion to build suspense. And William L. Petersen's monotone performance as Will Graham the FBI agent shows why he never became a star. But this new "Red Dragon" has suspense to burn, along with that patented Hopkins hauteur and insinuating wit. It also has Edward Norton as Clarice - excuse me, Will Graham - and he has the kind of on-screen charisma to hold up against a force as strong as Hopkins.
The film has been called a prequel to "Silence of the Lambs," because it is about an FBI agent making use of the forensic psychiatrist and cannibal murderer Lecter to assist in the capture of another serial killer; but in fact it inhabits a time all its own. The film begins with a wonderful moment as Lecter hosts a dinner party for fellow members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra board, at which they mention a missing Board member while at the same time enjoying the unusual meat dish Dr. Lecter is serving. FBI agent Graham (Norton), investigating the missing person crime, learns the hard way that Hannibal is in fact the one he is looking for.
A few years later Graham is retired and is called back to investigate the new serial killer, nicknamed the Tooth Fairy because of the bite marks he leaves on his victims. Lecter is now incarcerated (in the same cell he inhabited in "Silence"); and because of what you might call his own expertise, he must be asked to help with the case. More it would be unfair to reveal, with one exception. Ralph Fiennes is prominent in the film's credits. Since we do not see him early on, you are right to assume that he is the serial killer, and here the film makes a bad casting mistake. Fiennes is asked to play a pathetic creature, and it is well beyond his range to do pathetic anything. Watching him here is like what I imagine watching Robert De Niro do standup comedy would be. The words may come out, but the wit is missing. So just as we will not ask De Niro to do standup, let us not make Fiennes do pathetic. It's too embarrassing. And once again poor Emily Watson must play a shy, lonely, sad creature - this time blind as well. Isn't it time she changed agents?
Having noted all of that, though, "Red Dragon" is a small miracle of suspense and wit. It moves at just the right pace, it is shot and lit (by Dante Spinotti, who shot "Manhunter") with a polished yet documentary look, and we are caught up in every move and countermove as the script (by Ted Tally) and direction (by Brett Ratner) insinuate themselves into the farthest crevices of our minds. We are shocked, we are frightened, and we are also amused. This is a very good film.