It’s hard to say what exactly makes a certain movie “rewatchable.” Obviously you need an interesting story, a talented cast, well developed characters and top notch writing. It usually helps to build a world around your plot, or at least give the impression that a larger one exists. For a movie to be rewatchable, it is not enough that it be merely good, or even great. It must feel like a home away from home, an escape from our mundane reality that nevertheless remains relatable.
For me, “Red Dragon” is one of those movies.
For one thing, it has all of the elements that I just mentioned. The story is engrossing: A depraved serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy must be stopped by an FBI agent, Will Graham, who retired after nearly being killed by the last serial killer he apprehended. That mass murderer, of course, was the iconic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant forensic psychiatrist who notoriously ate his victims after murdering them. Now Graham — who used to regularly consult Lecter about his cases — must once again collaborate with his sworn enemy in order to catch the Tooth Fairy. At the same time he struggles with his own inner demons as an eideteker, or someone with the ability to “see through the eyes of another,” as Graham is compelled to use his gift/curse to predict the Tooth Fairy’s next moves.
Bringing this dark psychological crime drama to life is a cast of some of the finest actors of the early 21st century: Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, Ed Norton as Graham, Ralph Fiennes as the Tooth Fairy (real name: Francis Dolarhyde), Harvey Keitel as FBI official Jack Crawford, Philip Seymour Hoffman as sleazy journalist Freddy Lounds, Mary-Louise Parker as Graham’s long suffering wife Molly and Emily Watson as Reba McClane, a blind woman who falls in love with Dolarhyde because she doesn’t know about his true identity. Each actor hits precisely the right note for their character: Norton is bright but tormented, Lecter cultured and cunning, Fiennes sympathetic and horrifying, and so on. With the possible exception of Hoffman, who seems to be playing his role for laughs, these all feel like three-dimensional human beings.
It also helps that the story was adapted from Thomas Harris’ original novel by Ted Tally, who also penned “The Silence of the Lambs,” a sequel to “Red Dragon” that swept the top five categories at the Academy Awards when it was released (including Best Adapted Screenplay, which was won by Tally). In a genre where characters will often mouth dialogue that is either blandly functional or desperately hackneyed, the matter-of-fact intelligence displayed by the people who populate “Red Dragon” is a refreshing change of pace.
I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention that “Red Dragon” is a remake of “Manhunter,” a 1986 film that I also enjoyed immensely. While the acting in “Manhunter” is roughly on par with “Red Dragon,” however, it focuses more on being a visual and auditory experience — a visceral film rather than a cerebral one.
If evocative cinematography and a distinctive soundtrack are your bag, you’ll probably like “Manhunter” more than “Red Dragon.” Personally I prefer a cerebral approach, which is why I think “Red Dragon” does a better job of telling this particular story. There is more flesh on the bones of the story, particularly ihe seemingly doomed romance between Francis and Reba, the simmering hatred between Will and Hannibal and the little details about how the FBI uses technology to try to catch the killer. These are characters who you want to get to know better, living in a world so much like our own that it makes you wonder what lies beneat the surface of our own mostly mundane existences.
While I’ve only seen “Manhunter” a couple times, I reenter the world of “Red Dragon” whenever I feel like scratching my crime drama itch but want to stay away from the world of true crime.
And if you’re wondering why I’m not mentioning the TV show “Hannibal,” which recycles the “Manhunter”/”Red Dragon” plot in its third season? Simply put, the show executes that story in such a drastically different way than the two movies that it barely feels like the same tale.