RIORI Presents Installment #188: Roger Donaldson’s “The World’s Fastest Indian” (2005)

 



The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, with Jessica Caufiell, Patrick Flueger, Saginaw Grant, Diane Ladd, Christopher Lawford, Aaron Murphy, Paul Rodriguez and Chris Williams.


The Basics…

Kiwi Burt Munro is obsessed with speed. So much so that he can’t stop tweaking his custom Indian motorcycle in order to fulfill a lifelong dream: to test his metal and mettle on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and break a land speed record. Burt’s already broken records in Australia and New Zealand. But in the USA? Ah, the jewel in his crown.

He’s got the drive—so to speak—to “‘Ave a go at it!” But his ramshackle ride is a wreck. His health isn’t what it used to be. And Burt’s New Zealand home is half a world away, him an innocent abroad. Amongst his being broke, ailing, out of his element and a victim of his eccentricities however Burt never wavers on his quest for epic speed. His motive is not some throwaway reason why one climbs a mountain: because it’s there. Nope.

Because it’s for then.


The Rant…

I’ve always been a fan of motorcycles. Never ridden one, but am still curious. Anyone can understand the appeal of zooming down the road on a sunny day with the wind bracing your face. One may also understand those dyed-in-wool riders who don’t wear helmets. Must be kinda like flying. The wind in your hair, or—let’s face it—all that POWER beneath your groin. Hell to the yeah. One with road and the journey and seldom the destination. If you’ve ever seen Easy Rider (and I suggest you do, this the ultimate road trip movie), with Wyatt and Billy riding their souped-up choppers heading down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, accompanied by Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” wailing in the background then you get it. You must, even if you’ve never set your ass on a bike. Looks fun, fancy and free.

Me being a total rube when it comes to bikes I have trace only element understanding how the goddam things work. I’ve ridden a bicycle, but its bully of a big brother like a Dodge Tomahawk that looked like it escaped the set of Tron? As the Brits say, “quite the other thing.” What is all that gimmickry between those wheels? How much gas can that tank hold for long road trips deemed appropriate for a TV commercial? What the hell is a cubic centimeter and how do they relate to gas consumption? And how do Harleys make their pipes sound like God’s Own T Rex with hemorrhoids with an addiction to Monster drinks and free access to a Howitzer in the Grand Canyon? In sum, Hogs are LOUD. And how?

Mystery to me, which is why I’m a curious sort.

In my misspent life I’ve been privy to a few gearheads either boasting their rides’ power or otherwise dicking around in the garage. Although I’m not fond of visiting my mechanic when my ride is acting up—who does?—he and his crew are okay if you’re curious to see what’s being operated on in the garage itself. Just don’t pass the yellow line. Any questions? Just speak up. I gather that they’re not giving up any “secrets” just to prevent wasting in time in the future when can’t explain some weird noise with your car, which ,ore than not turns out to be nothing. Those guys and girls also appreciate a free Starbucks now and then for their troubles.

BTW, speaking of coffee, when I was fresh out of college and needed a quick job I took up an ad at the local cafe for a barista position. In the evenings when the weather was pleasant we had a small motorcycle club that would spin by almost every evening. I’m not talking Hell’s Angels here, just a bunch of old guys and high school kids alike out for a spin and a decent cup of joe. They’d park their bikes in the street, four or five of them, get something to drink and talk biking all evening. Not to mention boasting all their customizing they’ve recently done, to one-up each other as to who now had MORE POWER.

I’d admire their bikes and they suffered my questions well about this and that, like some dopey kid shaking all the presents on Xmas morning. Those guys explaining the mechanics of their bikes in references to a car? Hopeless. They’d rev up their motors to 11 creating deafening booms, or spun their rear wheel to shimmy back and forth creating squeals and a lot of smoke, laughing all the while. I didn’t really get it, but it sure seemed fun and I understood how they worked if you get the drift. There was a lot more going on than an engine at full peel, customized or no. I wanted to get “it”, but all I had was my run-of-the-mill four-wheeled vehicle, which I never customized. Not counting new floor mats and the occasional Little Tree.

Consider this however: If you’ve ever been granted permission to watch the grease monkeys lobotomize your crazy car, be it under the hood or from under the lift, there is a LOT of complicated sh*t inside your ride to make it go. And I ain’t talking like a Ferrari. I drive a ditzy little 2009 VW Rabbit (with a manual tranny; the girls love me), which is a pretty simple ride overall. There’s no GPS, no Bluetooth, no cruise control (it can’t; manual remember) and the A/C hasn’t worked since a month after I bought the thing. Sure, like your car it sometimes it gets whiny and makes requests via the Periodic Table of Elements dashboard lights. I need gas. Buckle your belt. High beams are on. It’s cold out. You missed your turn. I don’t like this music. Why do footprints appear on the windshield when you turn on the defogger? And then there’s that dread feeling you experience when the always scarlet CHECK ENGINE light blinks into life. Oh no. What now? I already topped off the blinker fluid. You know what it’s like.

The first time I opened the hood on my jalopy I was perplexed. The CHECK ENGINE lit up and sure enough I did and the engine was in there. It did not look like and engine but instead a mini fridge with four large cords protruding from it, out and away. The only other things I thought I recognized (actually the only other two things) were the reservoirs for the blinker fluid and water for the radiator. These three things made my car go. It ran. The last ride I had I bought off my sister, a late 90s Volvo that spent more time in her garage than on the highway and ran on mothballs and prayer. Must’ve been the runt of some litter back in Gothenburg. Long story short, you fast learn you know nothing about how temperamental cars can be until you have your own coffee mug at the garage.

There are a lot of things your needy car wants besides fuel and water. There’s a real tricky system under the hood, and all of it working in such to enable you to travel swiftly and safely. I spent time in that garage looking up. No easy task.

A motorcycle? I only see three working parts on a machine naked to the world: two wheels and the handlebars. But there’s a lot, LOT of guts between those wheels. Hell, even the brake discs are exposed. You SIT on the gas tank? You brake and go with your HANDS? Why have you been using CAPITALS so much? Because if you think about it, what makes motorcycles go so fast depend on a microcosm of what makes my bulbous Rabbit putter hither and yon. Compact. Ultra-efficient. Fast as roadrunner with Apple Pay. Stripped of body construction and smashed flies on the visor FAST. At first glance a bike’s compact nature betrays its power I feel. Sure, some bikes like Harleys and those luxury liner, over-the-road models are big, but the principle remains the same: maximum speed for maximum efficiency using the minimum of solid parts. Shrewd design, a knowledge of wind shear, balance and basic physics are all essential, not matter the size. And those crazy custom jobs that look like they were designed on Proxima Centauri? You gotta be one sharp designing cookie to ride the lightning.

Erm, well, Burt Munro with his cobbled together, cannibalized custom Indian racer? Not so much, even if he HIMSELF came from Proxima Centauri so out there he was. Or maybe it was just New Zealand in his veins. As well as Castrol.


The Story…

Down Under, if you have a need for speed don’t come calling on eccentric motorcycle nut Herbert James “Burt” Munro (Hopkins). Old man’s been tinkering with his over-customized 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle as if he were Dr Frankenstein. That “bike” is his wife and his life. Sure, Burt’s harmless, but so obsessed with his bike is he that his genial nature belies a man with a dire mission.

That mission? Break the land speed record with his ride at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The United States. The big time. Yeah, Burt’s broken speed records on his homeland and neighboring Oz, but he’s only a local legend. Perhaps only a cottage industry. But to go to America and showoff what his beloved Indian can do? Driven by a duffer like him? Beat that!

There are only two things keeping Burt from his quest. One, his age. Ol’ Burt is pushing 70, and its understood he broke some records with his mutant Indian back in the day when he was as spring as one of his pet chickens, but now he has a heart condition and arthritis. Is Burt still nimble enough to coax his bike to action overseas?

Which leads to two, Burt has known no other world than his hometown of Invercargill, NZ. America is a lot bigger than the Kiwi Realm, and Burt really has no idea what’s in store for him in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Salt Flats. It’s literally a world away, and Burt has some trepidation (naturally) about what to expect naked as a jaybird. Sure gonna be out of his element.

Hey. It’s all no matter, mate. There are rules to be broken, as well as records!

“If the butterflies in my stomach were cows, I’d be able to start a dairy farm!”

Have crazy cycle, will travel with crazy rider.


The Breakdown…

On occasion I frequent AllMovie to get an idea of what I’m getting into regarding the week’s hatchet job. Most of the reviews are kinda vanilla: useful but criticizing a movie without bashing it in hopes you’ll take it upon yourself to come to your own conclusions. Due to advertising, those guys can’t get too rowdy. My curiosity? I call it research and I don’t trust critics. Call it a proto-acid test: I’m gonna watch this? Cross fingers, toes and brows. Let’s see what there is to see from my POV.

I read the rather lackluster review of Indian and upon watching the actual movie I believe the reviewer missed something. Something crucial to the plot. Indian wasn’t Forrest Gump with a motorbike as the fellow alluded. No. It was a meditation on mortality; how fleeting life is. The movie was never about proving speed. It was about challenging time.

Consider Burt’s throwaway tale to how his big brother REDACTED. Up until that point, Burt would wax poetic about how he came to living in a garage and always tooling with his Indian. Next door neighbor kid Tom kind of regards Burt a folk hero, what with his stories about once upon a time and his itchy nature to never give up on his “old girl.” And, yes, Burt’s knowledge of metallurgy and engines can be mesmerizing, but there are many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments threaded through the film that if you pay attention, this isn’t a movie about fulfilling a dream. It’s more about keeping a promise. To one’s self. To thine own self be true. It’s not just for Sunday School y’know.

Indian is about mortality, or rather staring it down before the inevitable. It’s not made clear that this what the true motivation behind the real Burt’s dream of breaking the record, but his age and illness suggest that time is short. Precious. Live every day like yada yada yada. It’s a familiar story, but as it with playing the blues it’s not the notes but knowing how they should be played. It takes a severe talent to get this kind of skill and Hopkins does it in spades. His Burt is easily the friendliest role he’s ever played. He always has a smile, a quick one-liner and an almost childlike gaze on the world, although he knows time is running out. Every passing scene is passing, and Burt tries to make the most of, ingesting the new world he’s been plopped into. The whole thing is positivity on overdrive—so to speak—but appropriate and never mawkish. Some other actor of lesser caliber couldn’t have pull off the likes of Burt like Hopkins did. It’s most light-hearted I’ve even seen him, if not downright jolly. If you think about that, it’s scarier than Hannibal Lecter.

Oh, pipe down. You knew I had to drop that name here sooner or later.

So yeah, Burt’s obsessed with time, not necessarily speed. It’s not mentioned much in the film how Burt got the itch, but it’s implied. His recollections of moments past with Tom, especially the story of Burt’s older brother’s fate, hints at what Burt’s all about and the Indian his escape. There are quite a few quick shots of Burt looking at his watch. He also gets really irritated with smoking. At first this movie with all its fluffy positivity makes for weak tension. Oh, tragedy begets regret begets redemption. Yawn. I disagree here. All that sweetness and optimism belies the tension that eventually arises when we’re arrested by Burt’s historic ride and all the trickiness that undercurrents doubt and failure.

I can’t deny the healthy doses of silly/fish-out-of-water/innocence that pervaded Indian, and if any other seasoned actor like Hopkins would assume Burt’s fictional mantle the movie would’ve definitely fallen apart. Big shocker, but I suspected major creative liberties taken with the plot. Weak or not, the story was still engaging thanks to Hopkins. Ever since the man aimed to be a thespian he’s carried a lot of “unfilmable” movies through the course. Until his Oscar win, Hopkins more often than not played second fiddle. This is not an an insult; Keef makes Mick look good. Consider the man’s CV in relation to his Burt in Indian. Although John Hurt was the cause celebre in The Elephant Man, Hopkins’ kindly Dr Treaves proved that Merrick was not a freak, just a victim of a rare disease. The endearingly uptight butler Stevens who’s whole duty is not to serve Mr Lewis but never let his reveal his crush on Miss Kenton; that would not be proper. And of course his turn as psychopath Dr Hannibal Lecter, toying with FBI trainee Starling to earn his freedom. BTW, as all cinephiles know, Hopkins was basically played a supporting character but earned Best Actor 1991 for less that 20 minutes on screen. Hopkins is good—great—at being wallpaper pasted up by Picasso.

So what better way to appreciate Hopkins’ Burt in how he deals with being out of his nest in search of his quarry? Right. Go along for the ride, so to speak. It’s impossible to not like Hopkins here, all hale and hearty and chuckling and more than a little bit off. That’s his charm, which is quite the statement considering most of Anthony’s charm stem from his best known roles portraying quite reserved characters (EG: the aforementioned Treaves, Stevens and even Lecter). He’s a unrepentant optimist, never giving a damn about social graces. Almost as if his Burt was living against what Ben Franklin said about mortality (but still very much aware of it): “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Ol’ Ben lived to be 88 and loved a good dirty joke. I suppose you can’t help but be curious about some duffer chasing a childhood dream even if they’re collecting Social Security. I think the best example of Hopkins’ Burt’s unflappable good humor is best summed up in one line. When his new American friend, a trans named Tina comes out to Burt, his simple response is that Tina’s a sweetheart anyway.

Again and of course director Donaldson took some creative liberties with Indian. Erm, some? Precious little was true in the tale, save the showdown at Bonneville. If you think about it, Burt’s true test of his nerves would’ve been easily encapsulated in a one-hour History Channel doc back with the channel aired History. Sometimes you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf otherwise no dinner. How Donaldson and Hopkins jury-rigged the story to make it more…there is akin to (and I’ve used this example before, so muzzle it) one of the best Mandela Effect movies quotes ever: “If the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” Facts can be boring, and if one wishes to spruce up the story you need some ketchup. And kicked up dust. A spoonful of denial makes the soft script go down.

Indian is by far one of the oddest road trip movies I’ve ever seen, and it is indeed a road trip movie. Once Burt’s in the States what else would you call it? The record breaking takes up a lot of room in the back seat in the third act, but the eclectic encounters with the colorful folks he meets—which are all to kind to help Burt on his harebrained quest—makes the trip worth getting off the beaten path one in a while. And really, what’s wrong with a simple, feel good movie?

Indian isn’t complicated (far more than the mortality undercurrent) in which a story like this—legendary or factual—hasn’t been done before, and will be done again. Still, it was charming, had a little weird Coen Brothers bent, a motley cast, a kooky Hopkins and motorcycles. Like I said, sometimes you just gotta go with it and leave some cynicism at the door.

Now who wants fresh squeezed lemonade? No you don’t.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s fluffy to be sure, but so’s your pillow and you still lay back on it. Quit being a drudge and enjoy some Happy Hopkins.


The Musings…

  • “Time goes by so fast.”
  • I need a tomato-shaped squeezy bottle.
  • “It’s only flat on the bottom!”
  • There is a very fine line between eccentric and crazy.
  • “What?” Tom reveals the Maguffin.
  • I liked that clever reveal.
  • “I’m planning on going, not stopping!”
  • Burt can talk his way out of anything.
  • “If you don’t go when you want to go, when you do go, you’ll find you’re gone.”
  • Fun fact: Burt never pissed his lemon tree. Probably never even had one. Director Donaldson threw that bit in as a tribute to his Dad, who in fact did practice that kind of horticulture. I’d never have a glass of iced tea at the old Donaldson home, no sirree.’
  • “I did it!” Chuckles, naturally.

The Next Time…

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” claimed the First Man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong…by way of the Mickey Mouse Club.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 40: Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” (2002)


Red Dragon


The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Harvey Keitel, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald and Mary-Louise Parker.


The Story…

To know the mind of a killer, one must understand a killer.

FBI agent Will Graham knows this all too well. His final capture which sent him into retirement was the infamous serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. “The Cannibal” almost sent Will to his grave. Instead, Lecter merely left Will with a scarred body and an even more scarred psyche.

Now there is a new killer on the loose, and Graham gets dragged back into active duty. This “Tooth Fairy” seems to have the same tastes, so to speak, as our dear doctor. So Will seeks out his old adversary for some insight into the motives of his quarry. You know, to help with the manhunt.

Seems like Graham doesn’t understand as much as he should.


The Rant…

I don’t think there have been a lot of Best Picture Oscars in the past 30 years that have truly earned the award. I mean the Oscars are nothing but a high school senior year popularity contest, right? Minus the beer bust on Friday at Kevin’s place since his ‘rents are in Barbados. Best Pics in my observation are nominated on popularity (eg: box office booty), critics’ nose-out-of-joint say-so (I’m not in the Academy, so my say-so is worth f*ck-all. By proxy, I’m more qualified, so nyah) and the dotty senility of a clutch of old, white, rich guys who don’t even have to watch the nominees (refer to my Crash installment. I’m too damned lazy to repeat myself).

Bitter? Me? Naaah.

What I’m saying is there are some movies that are so monumental of course they’d win awards, no matter how irrelevant and empty such trinkets are. I am of the George C Scott school regarding awards and self-congraduations: just stay home from the bells and whistles (never get invited anyway. Sulk). Great sh*t doesn’t need to advertise they’re great. They speak for themselves.

By my measure—and my standards, which are hopelessly myopic, thank you—precious few grand films have come down the pike lately. By lately I mean in my lifetime, all forty angry, drunken, flatulent years. Across this continuum, we’ve had “what the hell” winners like Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and the original Rocky. Yes, that Rocky.

I await your beer cans. I am not afraid. I’m wearing Gallagher concert gear.

Those films are a small sample of good movies, but really haven’t endured. It’s no mystery that I find Wolves treacly and somewhat insulting, but it’s still decent. Worthy of all that praise? Let’s put it this way, quote from it. Anything but “Tatanka.

*whistling wind*

Okay, weak sauce. But what I’m driving at is a lot of those Best Pics haven’t really saturated the pop culture consciousness, as if they’ve always been there. Or the pop scene couldn’t’ve existed without these films, so entrenched they are in our short attention span, microwave mac n’ cheese, Nickelback downloading hive mind. The comprehensive list is short, but potent. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Godfather 1 & 2, Lawrence Of Arabia, the original (can’t believe I have to quantify that) Ben-Hur are prime examples. Precious few other capital Q quality movies have dropped in our laps that had no other option but to win Best Picture. Few and far between, but since the bicentennial we have had The Deer Hunter, Gandhi, Amadeus, Unforgiven to impress eternal upon our collective, popcorn-drunk brainpans.

Oh, and The Silence Of The Lambs. Can’t forget that one.

*our blogger finally approaches his point, and the crowd lets out a sigh of relief*

Stick around. I’m baking cookies.

Ah, Lambs. A perfect example of an enduring movie. Quarter century old and it still resonates with the movie munching public. Even folks who’ve never even seen the thing (for shame) can quote it verbatim, Agent Starling. I’m not gonna wax rhapsodic about the film, except the for that fact is that it’s the wifey’s fave film, which says something. Maybe that she’s a Virgo. But I am gonna go on about Anthony Hopkins’ performance as the infamous cannibal. It’s pertinent to the rest of this screed, never worry. So regardless what your personality makeup is, Lambs packs a punch. Along that line, no one out there in the audience has more (of a twisted) personality that Dr Hannibal Lecter, Hollywood’s favorite serial killer.

The most fascinating thing I ever heard about how the character is regarded is that Lecter was the guy you wished you knew. The man with the grace, intelligence and poise who would be the ideal person to spend an evening with over wine and cheese. This is naturally thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance, and although I cast a cocked brow at the Academy, they didn’t have rocks in their heads back in ’91. Hopkins’ charm sold the character, and Lecter is a very scary customer. Hollywood lore says that Hopkins only had like 20 minutes of screen time, but boy did he make the most of it.

So how did those scant 20 work so coldly effective? I think I have an idea. This theory’s based on an actual interview with Hopkins, and how he approached the character of Lecter. When he initially read the the script for Lambs he was uncomfortable with the character. Appalled might’ve been a better word. The party line went that Lambs’ babbling director Jonathan Demme was a fan of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the biopic about the Victorian prodigy with elephantiasis John Merrick. In that film, Hopkins portrayed his sympathetic benefactor Dr Treaves. Demme suggested to Hopkins that Lecter is Treaves, in reverse. Play him that way.

It worked. Lecter was well-mannered, considerate, insightful…devious, manipulative and twisted. Come into my parlor, said the spider to Clarice. That combo of sweet with the bitter made for a delicious, scary villian. And he was behind bars! The real terror was Buffalo Bill skinning girls (and a moment of aforementioned rocks in the head back then Ted Levine wasn’t nominated for his freakish performance. No justice, I tell you), not that you cared with Lecter scheming behind the plexiglass barrier. The anti-Treaves method worked wonders.

Which is why we still talk about the movie—and the character—to this day. Now, with such a compelling character as Lecter we hated to see him go. Although Lambs didn’t (immediately) invite a sequel, although the ending left that open (and it eventually showed up in the form of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, not to mention the TV series to a degree) doubtless Hollywood was champing at the bit to keep Lecter in the minds of moviegoers. Well, word on the street was that Hannibal failed to deliver, both the novel and the film (perhaps that trifle will be cast asunder at RIORI in the near future. Cross your fingers), and the nascent franchise seemed dead in the water.

Then Hollywood decided to employ a device I loathe: the prequel. It didn’t work with Star Wars, and if that ain’t a red flag I don’t know what is. Maybe that Rob Zombie Halloween remake. Some folks never learn. I believe that prequels are not just milking cash cow, but strangling the udders until they bleed. Can’t expand the story further? Retrofit! Fix what’s not broken! Muddy the waters! Freebird!

Deceive. I hate deception. Especially flagrant deception, in plain sight and a big middle finger to the moviegoing public. When a good movie comes out, and there is actual room for a sequel (eg: the original Star Wars or Godfather movies), it works once in a while. But for every The Road Warrior we get Ghostbusters 2.

That being said, and simply put, extending a movie’s story is a tricky, often faulty undertaking. Most of the time sequels are all about bigger, better, faster, more. Prequels try even harder. They are mercifully scant, but when they do pop up…well, law of diminishing returns. Think Attack Of The Clones, Prometheus and Monsters University. Superfluous, annoying and an obvious cash grab. If there really is another story to tell before the here and now, it helps if there is a legit story to draw from.

Might be a good thing that Lambs author Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon first…


FBI profiler Will Graham (Norton) has a problem, and it’s behind bars. It’s also in his mind. Furthermore, it’s not an “it,” but a he. His last case.

Dr Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Hopkins).

Graham has the skill—or perhaps curse—of malign empathy towards killers. He can get inside their heads, imagine how they operate, understand their motives. But all that sifting takes a psychic toll. It’s taken Graham to the brink more than once. Even the most skilled of manhunters need help in sorting disgusting matters out. Which is why he sought out Lecter.

Once. And it nearly killed him.

You see, Graham was being aided by Lecter in cracking a case of serial killer terrorizing the Baltimore area. Him being the preeminent forensic psychologist in the country, of course his insight would be invaluable. It was. All too much. Graham uncovered Lecter was the killer, flaying his victims and devouring their organs. Graham’s oversight nearly cost him his life at Lecter’s hands, but not before sending him to the loony bin.

After that, retirement, but not before stints in a medical and mental hospital. Psychic toll.

Graham was over with it. Forget the FBI. Retreat to Florida with his wife Molly (Parker) and young son Josh. Fix boats to pay the bills. In sum, recuperate, and let the nutjobs alone.

Then his old boss Jack Crawford (Keitel) shows up with a pair of photographs. Two families, slain in a gruesome fashion. Jack needs Graham’s old magic back; this case is hard to crack. At first, Graham balks. He was done after Lecter. Jack insists. This new freak, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” (Feinnes) is crafty, and Crawford needs Graham’s unique skill set. Will he lend a hand, if only as a consultant?

Graham has a family, too. But before he takes Jack up on his offer, he feels he needs some unique skills for his own use. This Tooth Fairy is cagey, and his pattern stinks of an old adversary. A very smart, clever and devious adversary. Someone who may be better than him at getting into crazies’ heads.

“Dr Lecter, there is someone here to so see you…”


I’d be remiss in my duties to point out, as far as prequels go, Red Dragon the novel was made into a film once before back in the 80s. A very good film, BTW. Michael Mann (of Miami Vice fame) directed  Manhunter back in 1986, five years before Demme’s Lambs. In Manhunter we were introduced to our best bud Lecter in the form of the brilliant Irish character actor Brian Cox. Cox’s Lecter was pissy, mocking and devoid of all charm that Hopkins had. He was great. After watching Red Dragon, I wondered that beyond Treaves, maybe Hopkins took some cues from Cox for a proper delivery before Clarice carefully descended into the basement and got jizz flung at her hair. Maybe.

Manhunter was a product of its time, and it showed. This is a good thing. It was a very 80s film, down to the fashions and synth-driven soundtrack. The cast was awesome, too. As Graham we had William L Peterson pre-CSI, the late, great character actor Dennis Farina as the dour Crawford, and looming large and creepy Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy (he later portrayed Frankenstein’s Monster if that tells you anything. Okay, it was in The Monster Squad, but come on).

Manhunter was an angular, engaging, hard to watch (in a good way) kinda film. I own it. I love it. Some folks claim that in some ways it’s superior to Lambs. Some say. Both are very different animals, though. It’s kinda of hard to believe that the character of Lecter (thanks to Hopkins) was nothing but charming and quietly menacing. Cox’s performance was a sarcastic, angry, trolling doosh, well met since he was pissed at Graham for capturing him.

This was not lost on Hopkins in Red Dragon. Must’ve seen Manhunter as research. Hopkins affects the same vitriol as Cox did. His Hannibal is f*cking pissed being behind bars, and spews his ire all over Norton’s Graham. He does it with the old Hopkins/Lecter charm, though, but here it’s soured. Where Hopkins was a smooth smoothie in Lambs, he’s crude and rude in Dragon, happily taunting his nemesis at every opportunity. Sure, Graham’s Tooth Fairy case piques Lecter’s intellect, but most it serves as the MacGuffin: revenge on his captor. Lecter taunts Graham, rather than goads Starling. Hannibal’s not scary here. Instead he’s funny, but not ha-ha. He mocks Will with his wit. He’s angry, and at every chance he snipes and snarks. And what better way to torment a scared person on the edge with a well-placed barb? Hell, I use that all the time. Sometimes even here.

Before we delve deeper into bedrock, let me me scatter some gravel. Remember what I said about Manhunter being a product of its time? Dragon has that, too. I’m not talking pop culture fingerprints, though. Director Ratner (whom I wish would’ve shown more verve after this film. X-Men 3? Blargh), with thanks to the scenarists cut a clean film that has tons of 80s touchstones without blaring them. Subtle old school touches are myriad in Dragon. The cars, the fashions, those blocky computers and VHS tapes aplenty. You almost forget that this film was cut in the early aughts. Of course it helps that at the outset, Lecter’s capture happened in 1980.

That’s another thing. Here’s where the prequel aspect actually comes into good use. In Lambs again, Hopkins’ Lecter was slender, almost gaunt. Spending years in captivity will do that to you (prison food sucks, and no liver or fava beans either). In Dragon, Lecter looks well-fed, so to speak, and still has dark hair. One would assume a cannibal deprived of his menu would slim down behind plastic. In Dragon, not long after his capture, one might assume that Lecter would be peeved being deprived of his “luxuries” and look a tad chubby. Of course, this in reality would be due to Hopkins hitting Old Country Buffet with his millions, but let’s not split hairs. Pass the gravy.

Norton as Graham on the other hand is a different case. In Manhunter, Petersen’s Graham was a cold, distant, haunted person. He maintained a flat affect throughout the film that made him haggard, scared and enervated, No surprise with the Lecter case he carried around in his head. The show was over, but not upstairs. Petersen’s Graham was disturbed. Norton’s Graham is cool. Where Petersen was on the edge of cracking up, Norton is collected (albeit barely). Norton has a rep for being difficult, and has a penchant for playing weird characters. Our baby-faced protag has donned the mask of neo-Nazi Derek from American History X, Dr Bruce “The Incredible Hulk” Banner and Fight Club‘s narrator. FBI profiler Will Graham ain’t too far a stretch, still he lacks the personality tics expected of a cop nearly killed by his arrest, only to have tea with him later. The saving grace here is whenever his Graham has to (reluctantly) interact with Lecter he looks visibly upset, if not scared, all set jaw and on the verge of cringing. His cool demeanor gets disrupted. It would’ve been better if the curled chin and glassy look were used more often over the course of the film.

Norton was no Petersen, but Dragon had a different flavor. Manhunter‘s Graham was emotional. Dragon‘s Graham was clinical. That’s it. Dragon is more a straightforward crime drama than Lambs was all drama and scary. Here we have fast-paced, where Lambs was careful and deliberate. Dragon wasn’t made to win Oscars. It was made to thrill.

Urgency is the watchword here. When Crawford shows up at Graham’s door he’s quick to inform him that they have a scant three weeks to find the Tooth Fairy before he kills again. The race is on, and it only lets up in fits and starts when we gotta give face time to our pair of serial killers. Everything in Dragon is bounce, bounce, bounce and the editing is fantastic. Usually a breakneck speed that Dragon sails at would derail most crime dramas. There is a lot of info dump here, but the delivery is so fluid you have little trouble following the narrative. In fact, Ratner’s skill at pacing is so good here that the hints and subtleties register moments later with an “Ah ha!” You figure out what’s happening in a flash and it gives you a sense of satisfaction. I’m on to you, Tooth Fairy! Chewy this, and I’m not apologizing for that one.

Something else worth pointing out. This is a DeLaurentiis production. For those out there that this fact fails to send a chilling chuckle down your spine, lemme tug on your coat a bit. That name has been synonymous with distributing low rent, chewing gum for the mind movies for half a century. Some of that studio’s output has been noteworthy for that. The good: Blue Velvet, Evil Dead 2 and (wait for it) Manhunter. The bad (and they are criminally bad): Maximum Overdrive, Earth Girls Are Easy and the Pumpkinhead franchise. All those disparate movies, however, have a signature thread running through the cinematic tapestry: cheesiness. For good and bad. Virtually every one of the DeLaurentiis films have a happy degree of movie gouda.

The rub? It works both ways. Dragon has some of that cheeze. There’s a campiness nipping at the heels in Dragon. As interesting as the acting is, its all one curd away from seagull-splaterring onto your shoes. Then again, it works here. There’s a sort B-movie aspect to Dragon, in a good way. Example? The supporting cast.

Example? Feinnes as the Tooth Fairy (AKA Francis Dolarhyde, one of the best character names this side of a Pynchon novel) is really enjoying his role here, which is really creepy. Sure, we all know serial killers are nuts and scary, but Feinnes really digs in here. His Dolarhyde is a slow burn, only to get bonkers all alone. Graham documented the handiwork while Dolarhyde was pumping iron and getting berated by his dead grammy. It’s the whole letting your imagination filling in the blanks. When Feinnes is on screen, we know he’s…off. The whole pie scene alone is quite chilling. His is almost a stereotype, but with the whole “Ah ha!” thing I mentioned earlier paired with the cheese Dolarhyde is not menacing as much as he is freaky. In the end, almost a thing of pity. And isn’t the best way to appreciate a character? Sympathy? Who’s with me?

There’s a few hiccups here, though. There always are. It’s understood by this point that Dragon plays on Manhunter‘s legacy with a lot of winks and nods. It’s almost as if the movie assumes you’ve seen the other version, inviting if not daring you to stab a finger at the screen. While Manhunter took a few liberties with the source novel, it was its own entity. It maintained the spirit of the story if not the letter. Dragon on the other hand follows Harris’ book almost note for note, scene for scene. If you read the book, it’ll be either very satisfying to see Ratner got it “right” or frustrating for the film being so literal in its execution. In fact, there are only two scenes I can recall in Dragon that weren’t pulled directly from the text: the first scene and last scene. How Graham nabbed Lecter and the ensuing psychological damage was touched upon in the novel, made flesh with the opening. The final scene is a sop/snicker for Lambs fans. The first works while the last is merely cute.

So much hero worship can send the movie experience into ultra-overdrive. For example, we learn that the Tooth Fairy’s motives lay in “seeing” things. And, boy, there sure are a lot of pictures and home videos in the victims’ houses. The clever subtlety is there, but as satisfying as it is to catch it, there’s not a lot of time to digest it all. Ratner’s roller coaster flow had a tendency to get a bit too fast paced. Like if you’re not familiar with Manhunter it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. I admit I had to do a bit of explaining here and there when I sat down and watched Dragon with the wife and stepdaughter (don’t worry. She’s sixteen. Not the wife). That’s not fun (not the wife).

Sometimes it felt like Ratner let the actors take over the movie. The lunatics took over the asylum, almost literally. As much fun as it was to watch our cast dig in, the narrative occasionally felt muddled for it, often overtaken by a bit too much symbolism (somewhat more soft selling to Manhunter) and scenery chewing. The “lady dressed by the sun” paired later with Reba and the fire scene was a tad heavy-handed. Then again, “Ah ha!” Again. It could get a shade busy and tiresome. It all came to a head with the super tense ending, which was very good, but it also had the taste that this scene was what the movie was ultimately leading to, not necessarily the journey. Virtually all our cast were in the direct spotlight, recapping their reasons for being. Considering Ratner’s style, though it was a good way to go regardless.

So no, Dragon is not Lambs. It doesn’t try to be. Dragon may be more demented than Lambs, but such a film should be. The latter was approaching art. The former was meant to entertain, and that it did. Quite well, in fact. With a guy like Lecter, you need both sides of the plate to really dig in after all. Delightful and goofy supporting cast both. Cheese with the chianti. In further fact, Lambs might’ve started the whole modern serial killer drama template as we know it. Style over style over substance in the finest way. Without Lambs, we’d have no Se7en, no American Psycho, no Henry.

And no Red Dragon, either. Full circle, that.

“Dream much, Will?”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a high octane thriller, more so paired against Lambs’ slow burn. Dragon‘s worth your while, so long as you pair the right wine with the proper cheeze. Visit your dentist while you’re at it.


Stray Observations…

  • I have that book. I also have no idea what human flesh tastes like. Probably like chicken.
  • “Where’s the dog?”
  • What’s with the mini-gallows?
  • “Would you give that up?”
  • The sniffing thing in both movies. Continuity?
  • “What was your trick?” “I let him kill me.”
  • Notice the sweat stains and tell me Graham’s not scared.
  • “I have no pity” I saw Schindler’s List. Gotcha.
  • Bless you, 666.
  • “You’re so sly, but so am I.” I mentioned this film caged a lot from Manhunter.
  • That billboard is a tad early.
  • “How ’bout an exclusive?” Hoffman is so slimy here he has algae stuck to his brow.
  • “I’ve been there myself.”

Next Installment…

“Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like Straw Dogs” – Su Zhe