Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass

I have been slowly working on this post over the course of the past year, and in some ways have been beaten to the punch by writer Adam Tod Brown, who makes a similar case in item #1 on his recent list of "Four Classic Horror Movies That Get More Love Than They Deserve." He notes that "Red Dragon is just Manhunter with less neon and more bullshit Hollywood-recommended plot lines and casting decisions."

I agree. I would in fact say that Manhunter (1986, dir. Michael Mann) is so utterly superior to the half-assed Red Dragon (2002, dir. Brett Ratner) that it is not even worth anyone's time to watch the latter, despite its remarkably good cast.

On what grounds do I make this claim?

(1) Red Dragon features slow, fucked-up pacing due to clunky editing vis-a-vis its predecessor. While this flaw permeates all of Red Dragon, and is foreshadowed by how long the film takes just to get into its actual plot (it's seventeen minutes until we finally reach the frikkin' Leeds house!), I can illustrate this via one emblematic scene comparison:

In Manhunter, Will Graham attends a briefing at the Atlanta Police Department after his initial inspection of the Leeds house crime scene. The scene in headquarters lasts three and a half minutes and consists of about thirty-seven shots, three of which are satisfyingly long takes that help make other sections of faster cutting feel more intense. The long takes include the forensic expert's discussion of the killer's bite, the Atlanta chief detective's address to the assembled agents, and the great opening steadicam shot of the detective, Crawford, and Graham walking down a series of hallways to the briefing.

Manhunter shoots its Atlanta Police briefing sequence effectively and artfully, 
combining longer takes including this steadicam shot . . . 

. . . (which continues as Graham and co. head around a corner, out of profile shot, 
backs to the camera) . . . 

. . .with shorter takes like this one from the more conventional shot/reverse shot pattern 
that ends the sequence. Note how the pensive Graham stands out visually here 
even though others are doing most of the talking. 

By contrast, the same sequence in Red Dragon takes only three minutes but includes forty-two shots, and is spread over two scenes in two locales, first a large lecture hall, then a smaller office. Despite the additional locale, the camera work is less inventive -- no steadicam work or noticeably long takes here -- and the editing is plodding, mostly shot/reverse shot patterns all the way through both scenes.*

Here is the sole visually interesting shot in Red Dragon's 
Atlanta Police Station sequence. . . 

 . . . meanwhile, the boringly edited scene's longest take is this predictable 
close-up of Graham as he delivers his speech. 

Though Red Dragon provides some minor variation in editing tempo (i.e., one or two slightly longer takes) when Graham gives his speech in the lecture hall, the scene itself is more boring because it is a monologue rather than a conversation between four guys as in Manhunter. By having Graham be verbally reticent despite his visual centrality, Mann's film makes him more pensive, mysterious, and haunted. Ratner's approach changes Graham into a talkative know-it-all and photographs him in a way that makes him more visually central (in an obvious way) yet less intriguing and moody.

These may seem like small things but they add up to palpable differences in cumulative effect over the course of each movie.

(2) Ralph Fiennes is WAAAAY too good-looking to play Frances Dolarhyde, whose character arc depends upon him being repulsively ugly and socially outcast due to his unusual appearance. Fiennes' casting = epic fail, despite the actor's great talent and that cool tattoo. Manhunter's Tom Noonan is vastly more believable and (therefore) scary in the Dolarhyde role. See for yourself, in these two stills taken from each film's "unveiling to Lounds" scene:

Tom Noonan in Manhunter: creepy looking, awkward, and genuinely scary.

Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon: The tattoo is cool and Fiennes is a truly great actor, 
but physically ugly social outcast this guy is not. 

(3) Anthony Hopkins' Lecter is a caricature by this point in the game. His added scenes, like the lengthy and unnecessary prelude sequence, are pointless filler that distract from the main event: Graham. Red Dragon's needless over-deployment of Lecter drags the movie down and is a key example of when real-world fandom fucks up a fictional universe.**

Brown notes this problem when he states that
Hannibal Lecter is everywhere in Red Dragon. Pouring wine, walking laps, giving advice, nearly killing detectives in flashbacks, and just generally eating up the scenery like only the Sir [Anthony Hopkins] can. The problem is, he's not supposed to. While there is a Hannibal Lecter character who serves the same role in the plot and is perfectly creepy in his own right, he's not a major focus of the original version of the film. It's more about the interaction between the lead detective and the serial killer.
I love Anthony Hopkins a lot, but I simply cannot buy the over-saturation of Lecter in Red Dragon. The lap-walking scene and the totally unnecessary pre-credits sequence are the most gratuitous examples of this tendency. They slow the movie down and serve no valid purpose.

In contrast, Manhunter gets the Lecter-balance right, leaving him as a sinister presence in the background but not letting him chew scenery and get in the way of the real story being told.

(4) Lastly, and not to be too sweepingly auteurist, but Michael Mann is simply much better at directing these kinds of movies (and probably better at directing in general) than Brett Ratner.*** As this somewhat recent CinemaBlend post points out,
Ratner is the sort of guy you hire for your franchise when you have no idea what to do, as evidenced by his last two sequels: both Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand operated at the level of a Saturday morning cartoon, the latter a particularly bad one. It’s telling that once Ratner made those films, each series felt the need to follow them up with prequels, producers eager to make audiences forget what just happened. Ratner’s exactly the type to have no idea how to deliver a no-brainer of a concept.
Conversely, Michael Mann has proven himself again and again to be a master of the urban crime thriller: Thief (1981), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Collateral (2004), and Manhunter are all superb entries in this genre, and Heat is an outright masterpiece by any measure. So on the basis of Mann's immense capabilities as a director of action thrillers, and of the better filmmaking choices made in practically every regard, I urge you to see Manhunter and to forget that the lackluster Red Dragon exists.

Ralph Fiennes says: "I'm a great actor, but together with Sir Anthony Hopkins, 
I helped ruin this movie!"

UPDATE 7/28/2014: io9's review of Ratner's latest, Hercules, supports my view that the hack director's style beats the life out of everything he makes: "I believe that Brett Ratner is an Entertainment Vampire. By this I mean he finds entertaining concepts and sucks the entertainment right out of them."

* This tendency to cram way more shots into less time and to deny a scene a chance to breathe or vary much in tempo is not limited to Ratner but is part of a broad Hollywood trend David Bordwell has termed Intensified Continuity.
** See also: the over-emphasis of Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, as pointed out in Part 3 of this lovely video review of Star Wars Episode III. The relevant section begins at the 1:04:57 mark of the linked video.
*** Devoted readers will recall that Mann is one of the directors I singled out as a personal favorite at the end of this post.


  1. I'd go further and say that MANHUNTER is better than all the Lecter films with Anthony Hopkins, including THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I read once in an interview with Cox that he thought he was so good at playing villains because he never makes them quirky, he just plays them straight, while other actors always exaggerate their villains. Not to denigrate Hopkins, but his Lecter has always bothered me because he's just too seductive and charming. Cox's Lecter is one of the most accurate portrayals of a real sociopath on film, but Hopkins' feels like Laurence Olivier playing Dracula. I find the American fixation on serial killers as figures of glamour deeply disturbing (Dexter, for instance) and I think Hopkins' Lecter is probably more responsible for exacerbating the problem than any other character in pop culture.

    Now, I only mentioned the portrayals of Lecter since it's the most obvious point of comparison, but I also think Mann out-directs all the Lecter adapters that came after him. You mentioned some of the reasons why, but another I would add is the overall feeling of mundanity in MANHUNTER. You can see it even in the screen-caps you posted. The walls are flat, matte, neutral colors, the clothes are bland, none of the actors are particularly good-looking. It looks like it could all be taking place in a shitty office building. Demme's film is so deliberately grimy that it becomes fetishistic (even the FBI offices are lit like Don Corleone's), Scott's HANNIBAL looks and feels like a work of phony grittiness, and Ratner's RED DRAGON is so glossy that it looks like a magazine ad.

    1. I totally agree about Hopkins' Lecter and while I think he meshes okay into SILENCE -- he feels less tacked-on and obtrusive than in RED DRAGON -- I do also feel that SILENCE is a highly overrrated movie and has nothing on Mann's work.

      You and I also completely agree on this point: "I find the American fixation on serial killers as figures of glamour deeply disturbing (Dexter, for instance) and I think Hopkins' Lecter is probably more responsible for exacerbating the problem than any other character in pop culture." Yes. DEXTER is not only stupidly premised, it is morally dangerous.

      Good points on the aesthetics, too -- Mann is pretty consistently realistic in a mundane, shitty way without being overdeterminedly "gritty." I think that is something I appreciate about his films as well.

  2. Agreed about the mundane appearance of the world in Manhunter. While I enjoy Hopkins' Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs," his portrayal grew more exaggerated as the films went on, possibly as a result of producers wanting more of what worked so well in small doses in "Silence." As a result, Hopkins increasingly distances himself from Thomas Harris' portrayal of the character in the books.
    While neither movie accurately portrays the physical (and, to a greater extent, psychological) damage Lecter is supposed to have done to Will, I felt that William Petersen's portrayal was more accurate, if only because he appears, as you describe, "a more pensive, mysterious, and haunted character." Ed Norton seemed too cocky and too confident; not at all like a character who has experienced psychological trauma after profiling serial killers.
    Finally, the last scene in "Red Dragon" featuring the nod to Clarice Starling always bugged me, especially since those two stories are supposed to take place years apart and they make it look like they happened back-to-back. It just seemed like such a stupid, throwaway line to do, and, unlike similar references in other films, it wasn't even particularly fun.
    I'd blame Rater for the prequel, "Hannibal Rises," but I've always blamed that on people who never read the novel "Hannibal," since Harris gives enough back story in flashback to tease Hannibal's origin through the unreliable narrator of his memory without creating a fixed story that seemed over-the-top. That said, the film definitely suffers from the Ratner effect.

  3. Frances Dolarhyde isn't supposed to be freakishly ugly.

    He's supposed to be overly concerned with his minor defects because of his abusive mother. He is smart, successful, very physically fit, and has a cleft palate that has been repaired/remediated. Yet he turns totally inwards because of his abuse, and believes himself an unlovable freak.

  4. I saw the original, unedited version of Manhunter in 1986 and knew, right then and there, that I had seen a film that would forever live among my favorites. Sixteen years later, Director Brett Ratner set up camp (i.e. lights, cameras; security personal; two of Red Dragon's stars, Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson) on the corner of my street as my toddler and I, (see photo below with Director Ratner) watched him re-make the one film in which nothing needed to change. Not even the score. Where others find the music to be overbearing, I found it haunting and suspenseful, and memorable, much like that heard in The Exorcist.

    The relatively unknown cast, was chosen with skill. Each major player turned in phenomenal performances. Simply put, it is my opinion that the remake fails epically by comparison. Without further ado, and not too many spoiler moments, I'd like to comment on the performances of both movies’ stars and then encourage the reader to rent Manhunter and see for himself.

    William Petersen, as FBI profiler Will Graham, is intense, sometimes gritty and others, sublime. Ed Norton's Will Graham was too young, too one dimensional and not at all believable in this role. , Graham's superior at the FBI, is convincing and works very well with Peterson. Harvey Keitel's Jack Crawford did not impress. Joan Allen’s, Reba, is nothing short of stellar. If I hadn't known better, I would have, without a doubt, thought she was blind. When speaking, she artfully hides her actual vision by looking blank in the general direction but never focusing in. I remember thinking how hard that must be to do. Emily Watson's Reba was just pitiful. Her character appears weak, her expression is just blank and her performance, as a whole, was extremely sub-standard and disappointing. Serial killer, , aka "The Tooth Fairy,” played by , delivers a spot on portrayal of a dissociative sociopath and includes the very rare experience of empathy and attachment later in the movie, At that moment, I believe the audience forgets he's a killer.. He looks so genuinely vulnerable and leaves you wondering if things would have gone differently for him at an earlier stage in his life. Ralph Fiennes, however, is not at all menacing in my opinion, doesn't appear to be wickedly clever. He bored me to tears.

    Lastly, the original Hannibal Lecktor, played by forerunner Brian Cox, is as good as it gets. You can cut the tension in the air whenever he is in a scene which is not often enough. His pathology is so deep; he's manipulative, calculatingly brilliant and quite menacing....something Ralph Fiennes just did not pull off. Cox brought this complex character to life and made it his own. That’s where it remains his to this day.

    Manhunter is clearly the better film in every way. It has poignant moments around almost every corner. Reba’s “seeing” an anesthetized tiger is just one of those. She allows the vet to place her hand by its mouth to feel its breath, convincing her it was alive. Then, with a fascination hard to describe, she drapes herself over this man-eater and uses senses other than sight to soak it all in. She is mesmerized by the intensity of the moment. We watch, transfixed, as she hears his heart beat and strokes the beasts’ fur. Dollerhyde’s voyeuristic reaction is shared by the audience here. You’re left feeling jealous of her handicap as you know what she experiences in that moment is not attainable for those with sight.. It is a very moving, seductive scene.

    Good stuff, Michael Mann.