ENTER THE RED DRAGON
A review by Mark Murton taken from a 1990
edition of FANTASYNOPSIS


I've seen the future of thrillers and its name is MANHUNTER.

As written and directed by Michael Mann, MANHUNTER is highly original and immensely stylish, and by foregoing, for the most part, the usual round of blazing guns and squealing tyres to concentrate on the details of forensic science and old fashioned things like characterisation without sacrificing any of the tension and excitement expected from such films, Mann breathes new life into a seemingly tired genre and points the way to the future of police thrillers.

None of which justifies the elongation of the title, as some sources do, to Michael Mann's MANHUNTER because the story adheres so  closely to the source novel - 'Red Dragon',   written In 1981 by Thomas Harris - that if it needs any such title then it could equally well  be Thomas Harris' MANHUNTER.

MANHUNTER also differs from the thriller norm in that we learn the identity of the killer quite early on, allowing us to learn something about him and his motives rather than him being just another faceless psycho to be gunned down in  the last reel.

The central character, Detective Will Graham, also represents an interesting departure from the genre staple; neither a laconic DIRTY HARRY-type rogue cop, nor part of a mismatched duo who come to respect each other, Graham works alone and the only person he has to learn to like is himself. No easy task considering his unique gift/curse of being able to empathise with his quarry, for although this ability to get inside the mind of the killer wins him the respect of his colleagues it's hardly conducive to winning their friendship and Graham has to work with the knowledge that he has more In common with his prey than his fellow cops. As his most famous arrest, Dr Hannibal Lecktor, taunts him when he visits him in prison to get the scent back, "The reason you caught me, Will, is because we're just
alike. you want the scent? Smell yourself!"

The overriding aspect of this hi-tech, thoroughly modern thriller is the intimate knowledge of the techniques of forensic science,all intricately detailed in the book and obviously the result of painstaking research, and all filmed by Mann to be as gripping at any high speed car chase - the scene where The Tooth Fairy's letter to Lecktor Is being examined under infra-red light to show up the difference in the two pens used and so reveal more of the letter had this viewer on the edge of his seat like no film since MAD MAX 2.

This hi-tech feel is enhanced by the characters' familiarity with and easy use of modern machines from cameras and tape-recorders to fax machines and computers, but, like the forensic testing procedures, it's never just for show and always advances the story another stage forward. Likewise all the information of the causes, order and timing of wounds inflicted on the Leeds family makes them felt far more deeply than a conventional presentation of their deaths would (we do get a brief taste of this with the killer's entry into their home marking our entry into the film), and this provides the film's first great scene as Graham stands In the eerily quiet room where the murders occurred, blood spattered around the plush, expensively furnished, white-walled, white-carpeted room in a frenzy of killing, as he recites the information
from the forensic report Into a mini tape-recorder,

The difficult task of portraying the character of Will Graham went to William Petersen who performs admirably with a man who internalises much of what he is thinking and feeling, afraid of slipping over the thin dividing line between his prey and himself once again, and for this reason it's not a showy part but Petersen conveys the angst-ridden persona of Graham extremely well.

The killer, Frances Dolarhyde, aka 'The Tooth Fairy', It given life in a chillingly effective performance from Tom Noonan, making 'The Tooth Fairy' a real and frightening presence. The Scene where having captured the obnoxious trash tabloid Journalist Freddie Lounds (a suitably oily performance from Stephen Lang - although, you can't help feeling that even he doesn't deserve the fate he eventually gets) he forces him to look at slides of his victims past, present and future while quietly enquiring "Do you see?" Is unnerving in the extreme. It's the character of Dolarhyde that represents Mann's biggest departure from the book, as Dolarhyde makes a much earlier appearance in the book and his character is allowed to develop more slowly in routine situations whereas In the film our first view of him Is then he captures Lounds.and even then we only see him in a stocking mask. Only later do we see Dolarhyde at his work place and I get the impression that Mann was reluctant to let us see him any sooner. Also excised completely are the chapters of the book that deal with Dolarhyde's unhappy childhood, showing how abuse in his formative years shaped his current psyche. By way of explanation, Mann told 'Video View' in March 1988. "I didn't deal with his past because I didn't want to get involved with all those flashbacks to his childhood. I didn't buy it and it slowed the action down too much. A fair point and with the film running at nearly two hours even without these scenes it's difficult to see how he'd have fitted them in even if he'd wanted to. Mann also revealed to 'Video View' that Harris had very little Input on the film, "We talked on the phone just once or twice. We had very little contact."

All the minor roles are filled with equally good performances including Kim Griest as Graham's long-suffering wife. Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford, and a winning performance from Joan Allen as Reba McLane - It's another plus for the film that then aren't any star turns just fine performances, and the depth of characterisation here should certainly come as a pleasant surprise to those who only know Mann's work through TV shows like 'Miami Vice' and "Crime Story' and thought his art was all style and no content.

But saving the best until last we come to the remarkable performance by RSC actor Brian Cox as Dr Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecktor, the man who put Will Graham into hospital with the mental and physical wounds that nearly killed him and lead to his early retirement. Cox creates such a frighteningly civilised and intelligent character that he seems to stand astride the whole film, omnipresent but unseen. following (or rather keeping one step ahead of) Will all the way. Such is his effectiveness that it comes at a major surprise on a second viewing that he only appears in three scenes and two of them nominal - once seen, you'll probably only be able to think of the film, as I do, as Brian Cox's MANHUNTER!

If the dropping of the scenes of Dolarhyde's childhood Is understandable then less explicable is the way many of the references to the 'Red Dragon' have been toned down or lost altogether. Key to the book. hence the title, it's a potent image that occurs throughout the story with the William Blake painting 'The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun' printed at the front of the book along with a quote from Revelation: "And there came a great red dragon..." and there's also the symbol carved on a tree near the Jacobi's house which is a Chinese symbol considered lucky In gambling and is also a playing piece from Mah-jongg, representing the red dragon.


The painting Is still seen in the film, glimpsed twice along Dolarhyde's slides and the tree carving and it's explanation are also retained but their importance to Dolarhyde is never really emphasised, for in the book the Red Dragon is also the darker side of Dolarhyde's psyche and his obsession with the Blake painting makes the Red Dragon a controlling force, submerging the real Frances Dolarhyde. This Is still there In the film but nowhere near the extent it is In the book where Dolarhyde has raging arguments with the Red Dragon side of himself at it taunts and terrorises him, driving him on to more killings as part of the process of 'becoming'. Blake's actual painting features In the lost extraordinary passage of the book when Dolarhyde, having discovered previously unknown feelings for a female co-worker, resolves to rid himself of the Dragon's Influence and books a private viewing of the painting where it is housed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and once there he proceeds to make a meal of it -literally I'm not sure this works on paper and I'm certain it would have just been laughable on film.

The woman who inspires this bizarre act is Reba McLane who although blind wants as normal a life as possible and makes much of the running in their relationship. This is more fully explored in the book (forming some of the best written passages) while her blindness also has a more direct bearing on later events, but as there are changed In the film you'll have to read the book to find out what they are. But while their relationship is condensed in the film it still retains the full feeling that this is a last chance for Dolarhyde before he fully succumbs to the Red Dragon and the key moment In their time together is retained where Dolarhyde takes Reba to a zoo to touch an anaesthetised tiger awaiting an operation to have a tooth capped (while 'The Tooth Fairy', another sleeping tiger with teeth trouble, looks on) as the modern electronic rock soundtrack gives way to a lyrical, haunting tune played on a woodwind instrument, producing a magical memorable scene.

Obviously when adapting a novel for the screen changes have to be made and scenes have to be dropped, and some of the smaller but noteworthy changes include the scene where Lounds puts his arm around Will's shoulder when they have their picture taken for the article designed to trap 'The Tooth Fairy' while in the book it's Will who puts him arm around Lounds' shoulder and Lounds also survives briefly after being set alight by 'The Tooth Fairy', long enough to curse Graham for what he did, so adding to his inner turmoil; while Dolarhyde's speech impediments, put to such good use in the book, are dismissed in one line in the film and might as well have been dropped altogether. And are film viewers likely to realise that The Tooth Fairy's teeth come from his grandmother?

But the only time the film departs from the storyline of the book in any major way, apart from simple omissions, is during the finale which, a little disappointingly, degenerates into your standard cops v. killer shoot-out; sure it's excitingly done but you can't shake the feeling that you've seen it all before (which certainly isn't the case with all that's gone before), whereas in the book Dolarhyde contrives to kill himself and so save Reba from the Red Dragon, something he seems to have succeeded in doing, but with another twenty pages still to go you can be sure Harris has a few surprises up his sleeve yet.

None of which is to decry Mann as it was only because I was so bowled over by the film that sought out the book in the first place, and to redress the balance Mann has even managed to make a few improvements in adapting the book,  dropping some extraneous scenes. and that dodgy picture-eating one, and making the scene there Lecktor re-routes his call to obtain Graham's home address much more believable when instead of simply re-dialling (it's stretching credibility to ask us to believe that a high-security prisoner would have free access to a phone without his calls at least being monitored), his phone is simply a receiver and he has to employ some ingenuity to get the call re-routed.

And Mann does deserve undiluted praise for keeping the film moving fluidly and coherently throughout its 119 minutes so that It never gets bogged down among the wealth of detail.

My only real complaint with the film is the insistence that It should always look good - such as Dolarhyde's house, In the book it's an old three-storey house inherited from his Grandmother (along with her teeth!), but In the film it's a modern one-storey house complete with large plate glass windows (ail the better for flying bodies to crash through) - when a dose of the sort of gritty realism seen in things like TV's 'Taggart' wouldn't have gone amiss (let's not forget that murder is an ugly business); but obviously this was never the intention and on its own terms it succeeds perfectly.

Surprisingly. the film received only a luke-warm reception on it's Initial release Stateside, and so never got much of a push elsewhere, but opinions are now changing as it builds a strong cult following and regularly appears on 'favourite films' lists such as those of Robert Englund and author Shaun Hutson. So when the follow-up novel was published last year it aroused considerable interest and is currently being filmed for release later this year. The book - 'The Silence Of The Lambs', and worth reading just for the explanation of that title - is an even better read than 'Red Dragon', again continuing Harris' intricate plotting and strong characterisations, this time giving Lecktor a much bigger role as he again advises (and analyses) another investigator (here female) In the hunt for another well-defined killer (this one with more than a little in common with Ed Gain) before events transpire to give Lecktor an even more central role. The filming of this book is an exciting prospect, especially as the superb Jodie Foster takes the lead role, although, incredibly (In the truest sense of the word), Brian Cox doesn't return In the role of Lecktor, which does dampen my enthusiasm somewhat.   This time the part is taken by Anthony Hopkins, himself a terrific actor. but Cox has made the part so much his own that I fear he'll simply prove too hard an act to follow. I hope I'm wrong, but we shall see.

Meanwhile, if you're despairing that the cop thriller genre has grown stagnant (with INTERNAL AFFAIRS a notable exception) and all it has left to offer Is an endless round of variations on the current vogue of offbeat pairings - black cop/white cop, American cop/Russian cop and even human cop/canine cop search out a copy of MANHUNTER and see how it should be done. Or even better treat yourself to a copy of your own now that it's available on budget at 9.99.

MARK MURTON.