Sometimes the best film adaptations are among the least faithful. The Godfather, for example, probably wouldn't be a revered classic if Francis Ford Coppola had retained the more salacious aspects of Mario Puzo's bestseller. Similarly, would-be frightmaster Brett Ratner's ostensibly by-the-book adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon confirms just how savvy Michael Mann was when he bypassed huge chunks of the novel's Southern Gothic claptrap in adapting the bestseller for 1986's superb Manhunter. Ratner has boasted about his film's greater fidelity to its source material, but it doesn't take an insider to figure out that the only reason Ratner's Red Dragon exists is because boatloads of cash can be made with another movie featuring Anthony Hopkins in his signature role. Ratner parcels out Hopkins' scenes in Red Dragon like a porn director rationing out money shots, but his star has been reduced to high-priced comic relief, a cannibalistic cut-up with a droll one-liner for every occasion. Set in the early '80s, although noticeably devoid of cultural signifiers, Red Dragon stars Edward Norton as a brilliant FBI agent legendary for his ability to get inside the minds of society's most psychotic criminals. Having captured Hopkins' Mensa-ready madman, Norton tries to leave his stressful job behind for a simpler life with his family, but he's recruited by a superior (Harvey Keitel) to find the "Tooth Fairy" (Ralph Fiennes), a deranged serial killer of families. To help catch Fiennes, Norton calls upon the profiling expertise of the imprisoned Hopkins, while Fiennes commences a tentative, awkward romance with blind coworker Emily Watson. Playwright and character actor Tom Noonan played Fiennes' character in Manhunter, and much of what made that film poignant as well as terrifying was the way Noonan's sick fantasies of power and dominance represented the universal urge for escape and transformation taken to its horrific extreme. With his squirrelly anonymity, he could be any unhappy, lonely working stiff. Fiennes, in contrast, is depicted as a crazy-eyed psychotic, a road-show Norman Bates prone to having animated one-sided conversations with his stern, dead grandmother, who barks insults at him from beyond the grave. Fiennes even lives in what appears to be an off-season haunted house. If his character were any more transparently crazy, he'd spend the film wearing a bloody straitjacket and being pursued by men in lab coats with butterfly nets. The only Red Dragon actor who outshines his Manhunter counterpart is Norton, who marks a considerable improvement over Manhunter's William Petersen. Context is everything, however: Petersen was a weak lead in a superbly crafted masterpiece of suspense and psychological terror. Norton is a strong lead in an overwrought, mediocre film that trumps even Hannibal in its mercenary shamelessness.
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