Manhunter (DVD)

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Manhunter (DVD)

Even before its release, the Silence Of The Lambs sequel Hannibal has provoked talks of a prequel, a film version of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon with Anthony Hopkins again assuming the Hannibal Lecter role. Of course, this idea overlooks the fact that Red Dragon has already been filmed, and filmed well, as 1986's Manhunter. A more enticing prospect might be a re-filming of the entire series conducted by Manhunter writer and director Michael Mann. Not that Scottish actor Brian Cox outdoes Hopkins' turn as Lecter—he's quite good, but he lacks Hopkins' otherworldly spookiness—or that Jonathan Demme's film doesn't deserve its status as a modern suspense classic. But there's something about Mann's cool, hypnotic style that's equally suited to the series. With Manhunter, Mann takes all the instincts he learned as a Miami Vice producer and trims them of their excesses, and the result is an unsettling thriller whose detached style perfectly complements its psychological intensity. When a serial killer begins targeting happy families across a broad geographical area, the FBI summons a specialist (William L. Petersen) whose last case sent him, shaken, into premature retirement. Abandoning his own family, Petersen sets about putting himself into the mind of the killer, whose methods of subterfuge, surveillance, and deduction parallel Petersen's own. The cop-who-identifies-with-the-killer had become a familiar trope by Manhunter's time, but Mann works it as if he's just discovered it, creating a film with an emphasis on voyeurism and tabloidism that implicates the audience in its own exploitative nature. Gripping from its first shot through a finale that should forever taint viewers' pleasant memories of Iron Butterfly, Manhunter lacks only one of the strong male leads from Mann's later work. Petersen fills the role effectively enough, particularly in a brilliantly staged (if continuity-error-prone) supermarket conference with his son. But he makes it hard not to wish for a Pacino or a Crowe, even if the film around him makes their absence easy to forget, and makes it hard to wish for the story to be done any better.