Will Graham (William Petersen) has a dilemma. He used to work for the FBI until a particularly harrowing case left him hospitalised and unable to work, but the trouble for his bosses is that he is damn good at that work and they send his superior, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), to Will's beach side home to try to coax him back to their fold. A new serial killer is abroad in the United States, and he has already murdered two entire families in their homes, both times on the night of the full moon. Crawford is certain he will strike again - can Will prevent this?
Ooh, here's a sticky question for movie buffs: who was the best Hannibal Lecter, Brian Cox or Anthony Hopkins? This has divided those who bother with such conundrums, as either you have Cox as "Lecktor" who makes an impression but is only in three scenes, or you have Hopkins' Oscar-winning turn in one film, then the less impressive repeats of the role in two following efforts. So does it balance out, or is it pointless to compare when they took such very different approaches to the role? Certainly Cox was a lot less lipsmacking gothic, and what he does here was ideal for director Michael Mann's work.
But there's the thing, while some will tell you Manhunter was one of the greatest movies of the eighties, and the first time Mann had really mustered his talent into a truly satisfying masterpiece, the fact remained that for all his patent skill with the camera and the setting of mood, that mood was a chilly one, leaving this rather tricky to get enthusiastic about. There's little doubt that by adapting Thomas Harris's important novel he was at the forefront of a new movement in the development of modern thrillers, although after Silence of the Lambs triggered the deluge you could also judge this as before its time rather than genuinely seminal.
In addition it means Manhunter now more resembles one of the abundance of television police procedurals that came along, stuff like Millennium, Silent Witness, or the most obvious example CSI, which by surely no coincidence Petersen spent a long time starring in. Adding to that small screen feel is that Mann pioneered some very stylish TV cop shows himself, including Miami Vice, so this effort comes across as less cinematic than it might have done back in 1986. That's more the fault of the passage of time and what became the norm in this strain of crime fiction than anything inherently wrong with the film itself, but it was hard to ignore it did look a lot more ordinary than it used to.
Well, maybe not on the surface, as Mann fashioned an antiseptic sheen to the proceedings, white predominating and a clinical method in the psychology, with Will suffering under the yoke of his ability to get into the mind of serial killers. There's no concidence that his family and the families who are murdered by the so-called "Tooth Fairy" (Tom Noonan) - he prefers to be called Red Dragon, the name of the source novel - see their fates in possible collision as Lecktor attempts to orchestrate the psychopath towards Will as a kind of revenge for capturing him; the family unit, so important to the Reagan era, is under attack once again, this time literally. But while this should be incredibly tense, all it can bring up is an icy menace as a lot of conversations and little action do not increase the suspense as you might have hoped. Say this for Manhunter, however, it is more of an artistic acheivement than the cash-in remake of fifteen years after. Music by Michael Rubini, with the all-important Iron Butterfly for the climax.
[On Optimum's Blu-ray there is both the original and director's cut (the latter not quite as sharp-looking as the pristine former), a commentary by Mann on the DC, a featurette or two and the trailer.]
American writer/director whose flashy, dramatic style has made for considerable commerical success on the big and small screen. After writing for television during the late 70s, he made his debut with the thriller Thief. The Keep was a failed horror adaptation, but Mann's TV cop show Miami Vice was a massive international success, while 1986's Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, was one of the decade's best thrillers.
Last of the Mohicans was a rip-roaring period adventure, Heat a dynamic if overlong cops 'n' robbers story, and The Insider a gripping real-life conspiracy thriller. 2002's Ali, Mann's much-touted biography of the legendary boxer, was a bit of an anti-climax, but as ever, stylishly rendered. Mann's next film was the thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as a ruthless contract killer, and his big screen updating of Miami Vice divided opinion, as did his vintage gangster recreation Public Enemies. His cyber-thriller Blackhat was a resounding flop.