RIORI Presents Installment #182: Jonathan Mostow’s “U-571” (2000)



The Crew…

Matthew McConughey, Harvey Keitel, Jake Weber and Bill Paxton, with TC Carson, Dirk Cheetwood, Will Estes, Tom Gulry, Jon Bon Jovi(!), David Keith, Jack Noseworthy, Erik Palladino, Dave Power and Matthew Settle.


The Briefing…

At the height of World War II, the Germans ruled the Atlantic with their U-Boat corps. The Nazis own the Atlantic from just beneath the surface. The subs are cutting off supply lines and ruining the Allied fleet via stealth and torpedoes, instilling fear and risk in all who traversed the ocean. According to the Admirality, it will take more brains than brawn to earn the upper hand.

The Nazis’ submariners have intelligence in spades, thanks to their Enigma codex. No Allied force can unscramble the Reich’s next mission until it’s too late due to the machine’s spell-bending, and yet another U-Boat sinks another Allied ship down to Davy Jones’ Locker, all hands lost.

What the US Navy needs is a break, that and a so-crazy-it-just-might-work mission to hijack a U-Boat, steal one of those Enigma contraptions and crack those secret orders wide open, potentially saving hundreds of lives in the process.

The US Navy requires seasoned crew of skilled sailors to handle such a daring mission. But where to find such skilled sailors? Nowhere, but this is war, and it’s always country before self, so we best take our chances on Lt Tyler’s very green crew.


The Flap…

I’ve never been much for war pictures. Not sure why. I’ve seen a great many of them, some held in very high esteem according to movie geeks more seasoned than I. I have seen and enjoyed Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now (a favorite of mine, which may be Coppola’s finest moment), M*A*S*H, The Longest Day and Born On The Fourth Of July to name a few. All good, if not great movies revolving around our species’ endless need to divide and conquer. The stuff gets you on a gut level, primal and also basal. On the flip side combat movies are easy to digest; all the drama and action is a lot sexier than seeing any actual combat. Go ask any Vietnam veteran.

That must be it. I’m no soldier, but despite all the violence and the human factor under the lens, war on film doesn’t look that…real. I know, I know. They’re movies. What’s reality got to do with it, Tina? I’m not talking about historical accuracy or torsos being shredded by tripping a claymore in full THX, dang it. Nope. I need my war movies ugly, sweating of desperation and dire consequences. I need drama without soliloquy. In short, I need grime in my war films. I think you know what I’m screaming. Grimy.

I guess that the only war movies that stuck to my ribs revolve around submarines. Now we’re talking grime. I have never, ever seen a “pretty” submarine war flick. Everything is wet, from sea bilge to dripping pipes to the de rigueur hull breach to perspiration f*cking all over the flinty, terrified crew. Grimy. I think it must have something to do with all that claustrophobia, all that canned air. Tension is guaranteed to get ramped up real quick, and the pipes and wheels looming all over the cast like some mocking maze. There’s an immediate understanding of no escape. Always acting on your feet, as it were. Such anti-romanticism might’ve been the result of reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October one two many times. Hey, it was a good book. Drew me in and made me wonder what kind of movie it might make.

Segue…

There are many more sub movies out there, but I can safely count on one hand a few silent service action movies that always keep ratcheting it up just one notch more, meter by meter below. All that sweat, all that grime. There’s the immortal Das Boot by Wolfgang Petersen (IE: pronounced “Volf-gong Pay-der-sen” for you exacting film nuts out there), the grimiest, most intense and probably most historically accurate, sh*tty depiction about being on a submarine crew. Disenfranchised Nazi submariners just trying to survive below decks and f*ck all to the missions the Reich command, so long as their Navy looks good regardless of who’s stretching their necks for Germany. These Nazi submariners fight for home and hearth and bloody hate their mission. Suck it in; its war.

The movie adaption of Red October was unpretentious and satisfying, had perfect pacing and starred an amazing cast with my man Sean Connery, the underrated Scott Glenn and a whipper-snapper Alec Baldwin as the ideal Jack Ryan, man without a country (BTW, it’s odd now to figure such an adored comedic actor was once an action star. And shot people to boot). The movie was a classic cat-and-mouse caper, with a dash of social commentary thrown in for good measure. All the characters had a history, all the subplots added up to a rewarding whole and despite the clean undersea scene, there was lots of sweat. Sure, the Red October and the Dallas looked like luxury liners, but still felt cloistered and desperate. Lotsa sweat, man. Lotsa sweat. Did I mention the director helmed the original Die Hard? There ya go and check it out.

Technically not a submarine thriller, James Cameron’s The Abyss (his best film. Refute me) is an awesome undersea survival movie. Claustrophobia reigns, as well as an undersea rig ready to tear apart at the reams, pressure reigning down from above and below. Most folks balk at The Abyss, all pissy about not seeing enough undersea aliens. They missed the point. Alien contact is the icing. The crew surviving long enough to have a third encounter is the cake. The protagonists are not the aliens; they’re men, just as on shore. That mess and it’s a pretty great homage to The Day The Earth Stood Still, so long as you watch the three-plus hour directors version. Never fear. It’s a Cameron flick. It’ll flow by like Taco Bell through the orifice of your choice, voluntary or otherwise. You’re welcome for the visual. Moving on.

It’s all about the cramped quarters. Modern nuke subs have a crew complaint at a little over 130, including officers. The average length of a modern Ohio class-sub is approximately 560 feet. The actual space for actual humans to function is no larger than a dog park. For 130 bodies. No room for a beer bust, or pooper scoopers. Can you feature that? The graduating class of some suburban high school crammed into a nuclear powered tin can, which is more or less and inverted balloon (like a jet airliner fuselage holding back all that pressure) with foreign objects ready to scar all that steel and carbon fiber.

You wanna talk about pressure? I’m not just talking about structural integrity here, but pressure on the sailors brave and daring enough to submerge in those old-fashioned diesel and electric powered subs of yesteryear, the kind that were swifter above the surface than below the waterline. Sonar was fuzzy, if even available and when you’re using bumps and bonks as a mean of rough navigation. And if gets too dicey to got to periscope depth that lumbering drone of a battleship can be easily confused by whale song. Until the depth charges start falling.

You wanna talk about pressure? Sweat, stink and swearing. If Petersen’s movie was the acid test, then a tour under the sea is akin to living in a mouldering YMCA pool locker in July. One could practically smell the fungus and foot rot. I would not at all be surprised by all the frayed nerves, patchy facial hair and having a short, profane order from Herr Kapitän or the cook. From stealth breeds bravado, and that invites death by torpedo or crush depth.

You wanna talk about pressure? From what limited civvie understanding I have about submarines is that they are all are haunted, and death is omnipresent. I wouldn’t bother shaving either. Haunted by way of compressed, grimy humanity squeezed into a unforgiving microcosm of fear, perspiration and the glory of the hunt. Happens little, worth the wait and risk.

After all this folderol, it might—barely—suggest I have some big message to get across. Of course not. Said all that had be said about the pressure of being on a sub crew/recreating that isolation and scene chewing required to make a film recreation palpable. There are precious few, and precious few further. Will U-571 make the grade?

Dive! Dive!


The Mission…

Britain is starving for ammo, food and sundries. The Blitz left London in pieces, and the rest of England didn’t fare much better. True the bombing ruined the Realm, but without proper supplies the country can’t even think of rebuilding.

It’s all because of those damned Kraut U-boats. Sneaking up from nowhere and torpedoing supply ships to so much flotsam and jetsam, score of lives taken. The Admiralty is furious at such audacious, cowardly warfare, not to mention quite scared of it also. To wit, the Treaty of Versailles never said boo about submarines. Furthermore, how it is those damned Axis subs can always, always thwart the Allied missions before the fool things haven’t even been carried out?

The US Navy has a hunch. It’s the Nazi’s blasted Enigma codex. Unbreakable. Thanks to that hellish gizmo the Axis are able engage the Allies under the seas faster than the wind blows. The Enigma can most likely predict that, too. Blast!

What the Allies can only hope for is a lucky break…and they get one.

Flap is that there is a stranded U-Boat floating in international waters, with “precious cargo” aboard. Now is the Navy’s chance. Take the boat, disable the crew and abscond with the Enigma. Straightforward, and with as little grease as possible.

Heading up this secret mission is the seasoned and hale Lt Cmdr Dahlgren (Paxton). Despite the need-to-know basis of the mission, and due to a lack of sailors, Dahlgren is hampered with a very green crew save his aide-de-camp Lt Tyler (McConughey) and grizzled Chief Klough (Keitel). The rest are green-gilled and literally wet behind the ears.

No matter. Service first, and so the mission proves successful…until Dahlgren and crew are holed by a German torpedo, and their boat is sinking fast. What to do now?

Right. The American crew has no other choice but to commandeer the Nazi vessel and sail safely back to the United Kingdom with the Enigma intact.

And hopefully themselves, too.


The Report…

Beyond being some submarine caper, U-571 is a measured—very measured—character study, even with the wartime histrionics. Meaning there is no wallpaper here regarding roles. Everyone in the movie has a purpose, kinda like being on a sub crew. These men (beyond the headliners) are well-formed characters with personalities and foibles of their own. Barring how odd that sturdy character actor David Keith and cinematic fringed leather jacket novelty Jon Bon Jovi evaporate from the plot, these swabbies feel like real people. Smart way to have an audience invest their two-plus hour attention well beyond the stretching point. That being said, the time just flew by. Economical pacing considering the closed quarters and skirting-close-to-formula plot.

(Another moment of your time. I’d feel remiss in not bringing this point up at least once here picking apart U like so much leftover Chinese food. Pick, pick, picky, but I feel it necessary.

Not surprisingly, and since the film did the research as U was based on actual events. Whether or not the events coalesced into a feasible whole? Don’t ask me. It’s understood, however, that films based on “true” events are more often than not subjected to “creative liberties” and sweetening. Y’know, make it all sexier like. However again, this was a war movie “inspired by true events.” That being said, I understand why its release in the United Kingdom ruffled a few feathers. A whole chicken coop’s worth. According to the historical records, the erstwhile true events were based upon the exploits of the desperate British Navy, not an American crew. Sweet.

I’m the last person you’d ever mistake for a patriotic flaggot, but I feel their ain’t enough Stevia in the solar system to warrant such a gauche move. And not even a proper send off before the credits roll. Like we couldn’t have taught Mac a British cum Fort Worth accent, alright? Alright. Alright lame.)

Where were we? Right. Movie. That thing.

I didn’t find U to be your typical submarine actioner. Shocking. I got the feeling that director Mostow wanted to bring some zing back to war movies with as little navel (naval?) gazing as possible. This movie dropped two years after Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, both high watermarks of existential combat cinema. Mostow brings the flash not just with terse action scenes, but that character interplay thing. Felt like he was going with some solo vision, sorta indie feel here, all stripped down. It kinda worked. More on that later.

Like the above pair, you get drawn into the drama by getting drawn into the characters’ heads (literally in Red Line and to excess) with U. I repeat: everyone has their place, but their place is based on immediate action—duty—which invests you into what happens next. Here, it’s down to the wire. Sure, Mac, Pax and Sport are the stars and that gets butts in the doors, but the supporting crew keeps you seated. Worked for me. plays like a play: deliberately staged and structured. It’s a nice change from the beyond crazy cray-cray 90s sweatfests so rampant since Sly Stallone hurtles towards Social Security eligibility (“I am the law!”). Burp.

U is an odd duck of an action film, not so often these days. Heavy on the drama, characterization and kerboom in that order. I stand by my conviction that if weren’t for Mostow shoving around fully fleshed out characters this would be just another sweaty Bruce Willis shoot ’em up. Nope. You actually have a modicum of care, if not concern for the sailors, even on both sides of the wire. Namely I appreciated all angles of the cast and how they were used. Not liked mind you. Watching the cast interacting with one another, the plot weaving in and out, it was not dissimilar to watching a chess match. Back and forth, back and forth. Run to the fore of the sub for extra weight. Thinking on one’s feet as to how to fix the diesels. Low level “sonar.” All these tasks cut workmanlike and with precision, and I repeat all of the casting was competent and well-executed.

A minor carp was the whole “liked mind you” crack. Here’s an example: McConaughey has always oozed slick confidence from his roles. Not here; he’s all anxiety and stress. Never seen him so grim. Serious, but a capable action hero. Not great, but serviceable. As great as the casting was, everything felt rather five degrees off cool. Slighty off and awkward. Keitel feels kinda out of place here (despite, or because of him being the sole voice of reason), but just because he’s Keitel, not someone like Sport for example. The rest of the swabbies don’t have a lot of backstory, but that didn’t feel like a detriment to me based against how well the cast worked together. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

On, and that “other side of the wire” bit? I appreciated how the Nazi submariners all had beards. No washing or shaving on a U-boat. A touch of humanity to a piece of the Reich’s more infamous elements of blitzkrieg. Mostow took some obvious cues from Das Boot. You almost feel bad for the Germans. That’s good direction. It’s also a bittersweet conceit that the Axis submariners are sailors first, not wind-up toys for the Reich. I felt that humanizing the enemy made the tension all the more palatable; these are people, sailors like Tyler’s crew. This notion perhaps filled in the blank I mentioned before. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

Uh, right.

This was an action movie, right? So where would an action flick be without its bucket of tech stuff to play with? Right! Hot Topic!

BONK

Thanks. From what I know about submarine architecture (which isn’t much. Most of it came from movies) quarters are always cramped, stations are relegated to a single chair and every inch of available space is designed for keeping the boat afloat and the crew alive. Again, Das Boot comes closest to this miserable truth. Heck, the sets of Red October were f*cking palatial compared to the workshop function over form that was U. And since this movie dropped circa 2000 we got really good models, not CGI. I dug that. Made the underwater scenes all the more real and seminal. Desperation does not let up. Grimy, remember? Claustrophobic of course, but the sets made the mission all more dire, like could rip apart at the seams at any moment…and almost does. The plunging depth charges, the winding torpedoes, and the B plot matters with keeping the diesels and batteries online and the boat alive. It was intense, resulting in excellent pacing. Right in the butter zone for an undersea action caper. I was grinding my teeth a lot, despite my dentist’s warnings about watching too many sub movies.

A final note, I appreciated how not glamorous it was to be on Tyler’s crew. Again noted with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line had nary an iota of the “glory of war” glam and glitz. Neither does U. I appreciated seeing how beat up the crew was. War’s never about charm. When this movie was released it was on its own. Not every action/war movies needs a “message.” The mission alone speaks volumes to us civvies, if we pay attention. Since U was “based on actual events” any head-scratching, speechifying or sloganeering would not fit in. Hell, even though this film had a “happy ending,” there wasn’t much to be happy about.

Relieved maybe. I had no fingernails after watching U.


The Material Condition…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, straightforward action movie with a great cast. No muss, no fuss. A Saturday afternoon movie. Call it a cinematic shore leave.


The Scuttlebutt…

  • “Everything’s in German!” Well, duh!
  • Um, I don’t believe that conventional crockery were ever used on subs (EG: Navy mugs lack handles).
  • The mock shield reveal. Ugly, ain’t it?
  • Zippos are temperamental.
  • “How wise is that, Lieutenant?” “Not very.”
  • It took me, like, two-thirds into the movie to notice Tyler wearing the Captain’s hat. Guess I was too caught up elsewhere.
  • The ring exchange.
  • No submariner would ever be so reckless with firearms as illustrated here.
  • It’s still hard to believe Paxton is gone. Sorely missed.
  • “Keep working.”
  • One would think more than just one of the crew knew German.

Forward…

Why the heck are we reading about some doofy rom-com starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore?

Because I Said So!


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