FBI profiler Will Graham (Edward Norton) retired after nearly losing his life in the arrest of Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins), but he’s now back in the field to track down the Red Dragon, a serial killer who brutally murders a suburban family every full moon. Graham will have to face his deepest fears and seek Lecter’s help to find the Dragon…

Let’s make one thing clear: anyone who tells you that “Red Dragon” is not as good as “Manhunter”, the previous film adaptation of the 1986 Thomas Harris novel, has either a) not seen “Manhunter” in a long time, b) a preconceived grudge against remakes in general or c) one against Brett Ratner in particular. I’ve rented the DVD recently to be able to compare and phew, what a stinker! Michael Mann directs “Manhunter” like a really bad TV movie devoid of any tension or depth, and Brian Cox’s take on Hannibal Lecter is limp and forgettable at best. I much prefer Anthony Hopkins and at least Ratner’s film doesn’t feel like a bad Miami Vice episode/Iron Butterfly video like “Manhunter”. Unfortunately, instead of being a lousy ’80s thriller, it’s a slightly-not-as-lousy ’00s thriller; not much of an improvement.

I’m thinking that there are problems with the source material itself. Some things that work on paper don’t play well at all on screen: Graham talking to himself while examining murder scenes, Dolarhyde befriending a blind girl and taking her to the zoo to pet a tiger, or even much of the plot. The way it’s rushed through in both films, Graham’s investigation feels like Batman’s in the ’60s series, with the FBI agents deducting way too much from smallish clues. There’s even a Robin-like (but Asian) sidekick: “To the library, Batman!”

Then there are the things that Ratner simply blows, most having to do with how he directs his film like a lowbrow slasher movie, with cheesy flash-cuts of gore, a shrill score that crescendos oh so dramatically to underline every shock and revelation and even lamer things like the TV movie-style “flashback voice” of the Tooth Fairy’s abusive grandma. Ratner does try for the gloominess of The Silence of the Lambs in the Hannibal scenes, but at the same time he’s playing Lecter for laughs, something Jonathan Demme’s film never allowed. You still can’t take your eyes off Hopkins, but he’s hardly all that scary anymore.

I was also disappointed with a lot of the actors; the performances are not necessarily bad, but they’re unexceptional. Ed Norton doesn’t have the weight and age to play Graham, who’s supposed to be a tired, edgy, unstable agent, Harvey Keitel’s police chief is little more than a cliché and Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s tabloid reporter is sleazy but not enough to piss us off, the effect we’re told he has on people. I did find Ralph Fiennes creepy as the Red Dragon, even though the script turns him into an over the top B-movie monster by the end. Still, Fiennes has a couple of effective scenes where Dolarhyde’s humanity struggles with the Dragon. And even though the romance-with-a-serial-killer subplot is clumsily handled, I liked Emily Watson’s balance of blue-eyed innocence and cynicism, and there’s something tragic, almost operatic about her last scene with Fiennes. Too bad the rest of the film isn’t that intense.

“Red Dragon” remains better than “Manhunter”, but it’s certainly not as riveting as The Silence of the Lambs. Heck, for all its ridiculously grotesque excesses, at least Hannibal showed the mark of intermittently brilliant filmmaker Ridley Scott. I wanted to root for Brett Ratner, but I guess he should stick to lightweight action comedies. Here he’s clearly out of his league.