Before the “The Silence of the Lambs” there was “Manhunter,” the 1986 adaptation of the first installment of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter trilogy, “Red Dragon.”
“Manhunter” follows the career of Will Graham (William Petersen, “CSI”), a retired FBI agent with the innate ability to interpret and dissect the minds of the criminally insane, or in the case of the film, serial killers. His psychological aptitude enables him to incarcerate some of the most dangerous criminals in America, but the brutal images of their heinous crimes torment Graham into an early retirement.
His sabbatical doesn’t last long, as a man called “The Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan, “Eight Legged Freaks”) initiates a series of sadistic murders. The serial killer slaughters families as they sleep, prompting a massive investigation by the FBI. When no clues emerge and more bodies are found, they call Graham out of retirement.
William Petersen is superb as agent Graham. His character, while overtly intellectual, has enough flaws to make him pragmatic, and therefore, likable. Petersen is able to display Graham’s fears with a certain degree of subtlety that gives his performance a genuine sense of honesty.
Petersen is indeed memorable as the film’s protagonist, but the spotlight belongs to Brian Cox, who is absolutely stunning as the infamous cannibal doctor.
In order to gain more understanding of the serial killer on the loose, Graham has his most notorious apprehended criminal, Hannibal Lektor (as opposed to Lecter in the other films and the novels), look into the case. The two men engage in a mental chess match, as Graham tries to recapture his ability to comprehend the actions of vicious killers like “The Tooth Fairy.”
Brian Cox (“Rushmore”) gives a commanding performance as Lektor, one that is more subtle and subdued compared to the more comic and over the top approach taken by Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Lektor’s role in “Manhunter” is minimal considering his greater importance in the two following films, but Cox’s screen presence is powerful nonetheless. There is no sense of good in Cox’s incarnation of Lektor, simply pure evil.
Director Michael Mann made a name for himself in the ’80s as the creator and executive producer of the hit TV series “Miami Vice.” Mann later went on to direct the feature films “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat” and “The Insider.” The parallels to “Miami Vice” in terms of visual stylistics are obvious, and some may fault the film for being so rooted in its time.
But Mann is able to craft a tension-filled thriller with his visual style that few could accomplish.
“Manhunter” wisely avoids the common mistake of so many Hollywood thrillers, revealing too much of the villain early on. “The Tooth Fairy” is an enigma until the final scenes, resulting in a character that is far more frightening and complex.
The title “Red Dragon” was originally planned on during the production of “Manhunter,” but was later dropped following the box office disappointment of “The Year of the Dragon” in 1985. Producer Dino de Laurentiis wanted to avoid any possible correlation with the other “dragon” film, although their stories were completely unrelated.
While not quite as thrilling or technically brilliant as the masterpiece “The Silence of the Lambs” (winner of five Academy Awards), “Manhunter” is a taut, suspenseful film that is well crafted and immensely entertaining.
“Hannibal” on the other hand didn’t live up to its two prequels, and would ideally be forgotten by fans of the series.
Thomas Harris’ novels are not done coming to the silver screen, as the “Red Dragon” story returns to theaters this weekend in a remake with an all-star cast and a hotshot Hollywood action director.
Following the success of last year’s “Hannibal,” which grossed over $150 million in America alone, Universal decided it was time to revisit the first book of Harris’ trilogy.
“Red Dragon” will likely not match the high quality of “Manhunter,” as it seems the new version will be more of an easy box office success rather than a faithful adaptation.