An FBI specialist tracks a serial killer who appears to select his victims at random.
The world knows and loves Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. He is quite possibly the most vile villain that movie audiences have every cheered for. Little known fact, Mr. Hopkins was not the first actor to ever don the role of the brilliant psychiatrist/serial killer. No, the first actor to ever play the good doctor was Brian Cox. Sure it was spelt Hannibal Lecktor, but it was the same character Thomas Harris had created. Released in 1986, the film proved to be a critical darling, but a commercial failure. It wasn’t until 1991, after The Silence of the Lambs that people revisited the first Hannibal film.
Based on Thomas Harris’s novel, Red Dragon, Manhunter had its name changed to differ itself from kung fu films and The Year of the Dragon, which had bombed the previous year. Due to the success of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, Hollywood thought they’d go back and adapt Red Dragon again, this time keeping the novel’s title. It was a shoddy film, made by a hack director, and an insult to the original film. If you’ve only seen Red Dragon, you’re doing yourself a great disservice.
William Petersen stars as Will Graham, a former FBI agent who captured Hannibal Lektor, but was almost killed in the process. That experience was so traumatic that Graham has since retired from the FBI and lives in seclusion with his wife and son. This seclusion is ended when Jack Crawford, his friend from the bureau, visits Graham. Jack wants Graham’s profiler skills to help catch a serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”. Reluctantly, Graham agrees.
Graham is such a good profiler because he can get inside the heads of serial killers and think the way they do. Unfortunately this has left him emotionally damaged in many ways. He checks out the crime scene of the most recent victims where he begins to get into the mindset of the Tooth Fairy. Struggling a little bit to get back to his profiling mindset, Graham pays a visit to Doctor Lecktor in the hospital. The visit stirs up feelings.
A nosey reporter that had been a pain to Graham in the past with Lecktor begins his same antics for this investigation. Graham uses him to provoke the killer, which only ends in the reporter being killed. Graham and Jack also learn that Lecktor is communicating with The Tooth Fairy.
The film then begins to follow the killer himself. His name is Frances Dolarhyde, and he works at a film-processing laboratory. At his workplace he meets a blind co-worker named Reba. He’s very smitten by her and offers her a ride home. He’s shocked when she accepts and shows an interest in him. Their relationship grows and they eventually sleep with one another. After witnessing Reba interacting with another worker from the lab, he kills the man, seeing the act as a sexual betrayal.
Graham realizes that the killer had seen all the home video footage of the victims that he had seen. The only way he could have done that would have been if he developed the film. Graham and Jack trace the footage to the film-processing plant and thus to Frances. Graham and the police show up at Frances’s home just in time to save Reba.
The film is craftily made and just an overall blast to watch. Director Michael Mann was a born filmmaker, plain and simple. He has a story to tell and paces it extraordinarily well. Seeing Graham’s journey as he gets his mojo back and advances the case is very satisfying. Mann puts you directly alongside him for the ride, so you experience the emotional highs and lows with Graham. The final scene is an explosion of every trick in an editor’s book. It’s unsure whether the scene was always intended to be as frantic as it turned out, or if Mann was overcompensating for what he believed to have been less dramatic footage. Regardless, the ending needs to be seen to be believed. Every impact of the scene can be felt because of the cuts the director uses. All of this while “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” builds and climaxes. Brian Cox’s Hannibal is more subdued than Hopkins’. He plays the cannibal with restrain. He’s slightly more villainous than charismatic, but it’s still a great portrayal of a great character. Hopkins was born to play the role of Hannibal Lector, but it’s interesting to see another actor take on the role, especially since he had nothing but the novel to base his performance off of. William Petersen is terrific as Graham. He brings intensity to the role, and makes the detective work real just like he does weekly on CSI. Tom Noonan’s Tooth Fairy is chilling, even more so than “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs. As scary as the character is, when the film follows him, it does so with compassion. It’s rare that a film attempts to humanize such a monster, and succeed to a certain degree.
Overall the film is a must see. It looks beautiful, sounds great, and just a tight package. The film is a little bit slower moving than its Lector peers, but with patience comes an expertly told story with a tremendous payoff. Leaps and bounds beyond the Red Dragon remake, if you want to see the origins of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector, watch this film immediately.