The Hannibal Lecter franchise may just be one of the weirdest success stories in recent cinema. The character was first introduced in Thomas Harris' best-selling 'Red Dragon,' which was later adapted to the screen by Michael Mann in 1986's 'Manhunter.' But after that flick flopped, few expected Lecter to make a return engagement, let alone in spectacular fashion -- until Jonathan Demme's 1991 adaptation of Harris' 'Dragon' follow-up 'The Silence of the Lambs' raked in over $100 million at the box office, swept that year's Academy Awards (snagging all five top prizes) and turned Lecter into cinema's reigning horror icon. Inspired by the sudden resurgence in all things Lecter, Harris quickly followed up the celluloid success of 'Lambs' with 'Hannibal,' which was another blockbuster as both a novel and a film, which then inspired MGM to revisit 'Red Dragon,' as a sort of trilogy-capper-slash-remake of 'Manhunter.' (Got that?) And proving that Harris and the studio just can't stop flogging a half-eaten corpse, already on the way is 'Young Hannibal,' which promises to fill in all those burning questions on Lecter's origins. (Oh, boy.)
What some call overkill, however, others claim is just giving the audience more of what they want. Certainly it is rare enough for a five picture-strong franchise to comprise one remake, one sequel and two prequels, the success of all of which arguably proves the Lecter character has struck a chord with audiences around the world. But odder still - and far more problematic for me -- is that the film version of 'Lambs' has since proven to be a greater influence on Harris' post-'Lambs' novels than the original books themselves. It has now gotten to the point where the whole thing seems to have reached a 'Scream'-esque level of postmodern absurdity. 'Hannibal' felt like a screenplay in prose form, with the character now a wisecracking slasher variant of Freddy Krueger, and really, does the world want or need a 'Young Hannibal?'
Even by the time of Brett Ratner's take on 'Red Dragon', which came after the dreadful 'Hannibal' but before 'Young Hannibal,' many felt enough was enough. Of course, in Hollywood, where there is a will there is a way, and reactions to 'Red Dragon' seemed to be split down the middle. Was it just another example of cynical commercialism, or a legitimate artistic work that sought to create a cohesion between the cinematic adaptations of Harris' Lecter series, which the Anthony Hopkins-less 'Manhunter' was unable to do? For me, Ratner's take on 'Red Dragon' falls somewhere between art and commerce. It is a noble effort which legitimately tries to tie up a cinematic trilogy by reuniting many of the key creative personnel behind 'Lambs,' including Hopkins and screenwriter Ted Tally, both of whom 'Manhunter' lacked. Yet 'Dragon' still feels like a somewhat inferior remake of 'Lambs,' rather than a film that truly stands on its own.
In the film's defense, much fault for that perception lies with Harris' original novel. Quite simply, 'Lambs' was really a thinly-disguised, albeit superior literary evolution of 'Dragon.' Essentially the same story with the same dynamic between its central characters, 'Lambs' was better plotted, more consistently gripping, and ultimately more resonant. Indeed, the similarities between the two books are pretty obvious. In both 'Lambs' and 'Dragon,' Lecter is largely confined to a cell for the length of the picture. Once again, an idealistic federal agent has to interact with the insanely intelligent cannibal, in the hopes of using his expertise to capture another serial killer. Both films also feature similarly gruesome, spectacular death scenes, a hapless victim who provides the story's ticking clock, and a redemptive transformation for the main character, who will undergo a spiritual rebirth after his/her encounter with Lecter.
Unfortunately, in 'Dragon,' the characters and core mystery are just not as compelling as in 'Silence' -- a fact Harris likely knew, for he essentially remade his own novel with 'Lambs.' Instead of the determined, fledging trainee Clarice Starling (Oscar-winner Jodie Foster), here we get Will Graham (Edward Norton), the federal agent who first put Lecter behind bars and is now a retired, burned-out family man called into a duty one last time. Instead of the Ed Gein-esque, transvestite killer Buffalo Bill, we get The Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes), another psycho with a mommy complex who likes to torture and kill innocent women. And instead of Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, we get... Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, only ten years older and about fifteen pounds plumper, even though 'Dragon' is supposed to take well before the events in 'Lambs.'
Despite the tired, recycled feel of 'Dragon,' it is still worth watching. Even a 'Silence' test run is far better than the vast majority of the serial killer movies Hollywood has been pumping out in the wake of 'Lambs' success. Ratner does a slick, professional job in retaining much of the look and feel of 'Lambs,' without being a complete carbon copy. 'Dragon' also boasts a great cast, and if even actors as fine as Norton, Fiennes and Emily Watson as The Tooth Fairy's next victim, can't quite engage our emotions as strongly as Foster, Ted Levine (as Buffalo Bill) and Brooke Smith (as the long-suffering Catherine Martin), they do the best they can with the material. And no matter what, 'Dragon' is far, far superior to the wretched, ugly 'Hannibal,' which left a bad taste in the mouths of even the most ardent Lecter fans. 'Red Dragon,' though chronologically the first in the series, indeed ends the franchise on a relative high note, and caps off what should have been a trilogy in more than worthy fashion.
Breaking away from the visual tradition set by 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Hannibal,' which were both filmed in 1.85:1, Brett Ratner chose to shoot 'Red Dragon' in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Though I won't recommend that Lecter chew off Ratner's arm in retaliation, it does means that 'Dragon' is a bit of the odd-man out in the trilogy. Aesthetic debates aside, the film looked quite good when it was first released on standard-def DVD back in 2002, and it looks quite good now on HD DVD. Sure, this appears to be the same master as used previously, but there really was nothing wrong with it the first time around, so I guess no need to fix what ain't broken.
Indeed, everything about this high-def version is pretty first-rate. The print is in pristine shape, with rich deep, rich blacks. Though 'Red Dragon' is often a very dark film, and director of photography Dante Spinotti employed some harsh filters to boost texture and mood, the image always appears detailed regardless. Colors are very well saturated -- in fact, they are sometimes shocking in their boldness. From Hannibal's inner chamber, with its craggy grays, to the solid blue of his cute prison jumpsuit, and the deep reds and crimsons, 'Red Dragon' is definitely one of the msot vivid HD DVD titles I've ever seen. There is a price to pay, though, for such eye-popping colors. Though smearing and fuzziness are not a problem, chroma noise is -- it is readily apparent on the most saturated hues, and can be distracting.
Contrast is also nicely consistent across the entire grayscale, and whites are thankfully not blown-out -- unlike so many of these serial killer films, which seem worried that their dark scenes will come off too grim and overpump everything to compensate. However, I did notice some inconsistency in sharpness and depth. Though hardly severe, there were a few odd shots and sequences that didn't seem as eye-popping as the rest, such as the dim, fluorescent interiors of Emily Watson's workplace scenes, and some of the outdoor shots, which seem a bit more overcast and flat. (Of course, much of this may have been an intentional stylistic choice, but then I can't help but be persnickety.) Regardless, all told 'Red Dragon' looks very strong on HD DVD and is up there with the better transfers I've seen on the format so far.
I remember first seeing 'Red Dragon' in the theater, and even then I recall being quite impressed by the effectiveness of its sound design. It is a far more aggressive, surround-heavy mix than I expected (or, indeed, the film really needed), and delivers a great sense of atmosphere and immersiveness.
As usual per its HD DVD releases, Universal presents 'Red Dragon' in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (encoded at 640kbps), and it sounds a bit better than the standard DVD release. Dynamic range was already quite full-bodied before, but now midrange is fuller and low-end frequencies more dynamic. For example, right in the opening scene when Lecter is first captured, the low tones of Danny Elfman's score sound punchier and deeper on the Dolby Digital-Plus. Surround use also boasts some improvement. In the scene where one of The Tooth Fairy's most unfortunate victims meets his end by way of a flaming wheelchair careening down Fifth Avenue, the movement of sounds between channels is far more transparent. I also was grateful that balance between dialogue, effects and score is quite evenhanded, and I wasn't left reaching for the volume button on my remote control to compensate.
Holy crap, are there a lot of extras stuffed on this HD DVD release of 'Red Dragon!' Porting over all of the supplements on the previous two-disc Director's Edition DVD, I continue to be shocked at how many extras can fit on a single HD-30, dual-layer disc. Granted, there is really no way of telling if all these goodies have compromised the video and audio quality of the film in any way, but when a disc comes this loaded it is hard to complain.
First up we have a screen-specific audio commentary with director Brett Ratner and screenwriter Ted Tally. Ratner is a rather hyperkinetic, likable fellow, and certainly has a great deal of enthusiasm for this project, which turned out to be his first real A-ticket, directorial effort. However, I'm not sure if I could have taken a whole two hours with his fast-talking style, so luckily we have Tally to tone things down. Both together deliver quite a fine commentary. There were obviously a lot of expectations riding on this one, and who would want to follow up directors like Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, especially on a prequel few were really clamoring for? Apparently Ratner did, and he seems unfazed by the criticisms leveled at the film and it's not-quite-blockbuster box office. Other highlights include discussion on the casting process, as well as the reasoning behind Tally's decisions in adapting Harris' often lengthy prose. Even though some fanboys continue to hate Ratner (his taking over the 'X-Men' franchise from Bryan Singer certainly didn't help), I can honestly say that at least on this commentary, I did get a new appreciation for the film, and Ratner, too.
Next we have no less than 15 additional scenes. Half are full standalone scenes, the other eight alternate or extended versions of existing sequences. There's some good character bits here that fans of the book will recognize, especially between Edward Norton and Mary-Louise Parker, and Harvey Keitel, Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson, No, nothing here is a showy setpiece, nor is there any lost Lecter ghoulishness. But fans of the book will dig most of this stuff.
Kicking of the video-based extras (all presented in 480i video only) are a bunch of fluffy EPK-style featurettes: "Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer" (8 minutes) introduces to FBI profiler John Douglas, who fans should remember from his work on 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Hannibal'; "Hannibal Lecter and Me" (4 minutes) is a way-too-short interview with Anthony Hopkins about cashing his latest paycheck; and "The Making of Red Dragon" (14 minutes) is your prototypical making-of, with on-the-set interviews and breathless narration. Fine crap, but it can't compare to the real making of stuff up next...
"A Director's Journey: The Making of Red Dragon" is the real heart of this disc, and the kind of genuine documentary (however short) that diehard fans really want instead of those HBO First Look things. "A Director's Journey" clocks in at 39 minutes, and tracks Ratner as he goes through most of the stages of film production: development, scouting locations, casting, shooting, and editing. Best of all are the scenes of Ratner fighting with producer Dino de Laurentiis, who seems so unconcerned with the safety of that cast and crew that if any of them had burned to death in an on-set accident, he would have just CGI'd their faces on different actors. Ironically, those who hate Ratner will also love "A Director's Journey," for the smart aleck director is frequently seen "discussing" major decisions with everybody (you'll understand when you watch this), so kudos to the guy for leaving this kind of unflattering stuff in.
The remaining supplements here are pretty good, even if they can't quite live up to the video diary. We get five more featurettes: "Visual Effects" (4 minutes) is a before-and-after montage of a few scenes that used CGI, and cut back and forth as each effect's "plates" are built up; "Film Tests" (11 minutes) is the best of the bunch, offering a guided tour of Ralph Fiennes going through his Tooth Fairy paces, including being outfitted with his blood and tattoos; "Leed's House Crime Scene" (4 minutes) gives us a tour of the location with technical advisor Lt. Ray Peavy; and the virtual snippet "Makeup Application"an (a mere 1 minute), which shows us how they got those pieces of glass in the actor's eyes. Ick. And then there is "Burning Wheelchair" (3 minutes), which I found really funny because I'm a sick fuck. Note also that the cool thing about these vignettes is that various participants, including Ratner, director of photography Dante Spinotti and makeup artist Matthew Mungle offer narration to guide us through what we are seeing.
Rounding out the extras are nice Storyboard-to-Screen comparisons for three scenes, plus the shameless inclusion of Brett Ratner's "Untitled Student Film." I saw this once when I was at film school and I never want to see it again. But I can't describe it, so you'll just have to watch it to see the height of student film pretentiousness. Sorry, I just wasn't a fan.
Despite the myriad of extras here, no theatrical trailers for the film are included. So much for dessert...
I can't say 'Red Dragon' is the best entry in the Hannibal Lecter franchise, either as a film or a novel. But it is far from the worst, and is a well-constructed and entertaining thriller in its own right. As an HD DVD release, it is aces, with a great transfer and soundtrack, and packed with probably the most extras I've yet seen on HD DVD. If you are at all interested in owning 'Red Dragon' on disc, then this is definitely the version to get.