In "Manhunter's" (citywide) battle between good and consummate evil, director Michael Mann gives us hypnotically interesting villains and a klunker of a hero. Then he mounts his film with the speed of a bullet train and virtually defies us to get off while it's in motion.
Few will want to. From the first image, a young family pinpointed by the flashlight beam of a murderous intruder, "Manhunter" works like a chokehold. It's only later, safely out of its grasp, that you begin to notice that for all its perverse fascination, and save for two superlative performances, "Manhunter" has delivered very little. Like the mirrors that dot it, "Manhunter" is all flat, brilliant, reflective surfaces.
Mann adapted it from Thomas Harris' dark, ensanguined, utterly terrifying novel "Red Dragon." But where Harris was clear and graphic in his account of torture and murder, Mann has been canny enough to pull back, to set these heinous crimes in warm dark places where they can flourish alarmingly--within our minds. For all its horrific subject, "Manhunter's" violence, except for a shoot-out, is implied or off screen.
It begins with a classic cop-thriller device: The only man for a job has to be coaxed out of early retirement to come back and do it. Ex-FBI man Will Graham (William L. Petersen) is hiding away on a Gulf Coast town with his wife Molly (Kim Greist) and young son (David Seaman) when a twisted killer hits two affluent young Southern families, murdering everyone.
It seems that Graham's specialty is pretty fancy forensics, entering the mental set of his criminals, thinking as they would, trying to anticipate their next moves. He's been successful, but it's already almost cost him his life after an unexpected confrontation with a sadistic psychiatrist-killer, Dr. Hannibal Lektor (Britain's brilliant Brian Cox.)
Useless for a woman to protest in a Mann movie, when her man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Molly's lot is to wait, decoratively, while the incredibly oiled wheels of the FBI begin to whirr. And you wait too, for just one sign that any of this is human; for someone to get a busy signal, a parking ticket, for one agency to not answer at 2:30 in the morning, or have ordinary, grungy files, not the blazing chic of white, white, white. This is not to be.
In a flurry of precision sequences, Graham goes about his dogged business, eventually even conferring with a lounging Dr. Lektor in his (white) cell, "to get the mind set back." These are part of the movie's best moments. Brainy, powerful, focused, actor Cox creates the impression that archfiend Lektor, "Hannibal the cannibal," could probably run for governor from behind bars and win if he simply put his mind to it.
An equally hypnotic character comes next: Tom Noonan as the tall, disfigured Francis Dollarhyde, the second of the film's reigning evils. The film leaves the routine policier rails entirely when it invites us around behind this psychopath, to see him in an ordinary human exchange.
Of course, since Dollarhyde is obsessed with the poet/painter William Blake, it's not quite ordinary, but a sequence vibrating with enormous repressed sexuality. It involves Reba (Joan Allen), a young blind woman from Dollarhyde's workplace and a huge anesthetized Bengal tiger, whom he lets her stroke in awe, while Dollarhyde watches. (Strangely enough, the film doesn't make the connection for us to Blake's famous "Tiger, tiger, burning bright," which certainly seems to underlie this bizarre and beautiful sequence.)
Lektor, Dollarhyde and Dollarhyde's relationship with Reba are the giant pluses of "Manhunter." Its compelling pace is another (it's not accidental that Mann's veteran editor, Dov Hoenig, is given significant placement in the movie's credit roll; as with "Thief," the editing urges the film forward inexorably.) And the camera work of Dante Spinotti, a new name, is handsome and effective.
Unfortunately, although he's good enough in the role, Petersen is less than charismatic. The camera doesn't much love him and neither, I fear, do we. And unlike "Thief's" great Tangerine Dream score, this one, by The Reds and Michel Rubini punctures, rather than punctuates the action. Maybe it's too much "Miami Vice" for Mann (its producer), but the blasting songs from "Manhunter" overpower rather than enrich the action.
Mann's films in the past have marked him as an intelligent stylist. With "Manhunter," there seems to be some danger that style has overrun content, leaving behind a vast, chic, well-cast wasteland. 'MANHUNTER'
A De Laurentiis Entertainment Group release of a Dino De Laurentiis presentation of a Richard Roth production. Producer Roth. Executive producer Bernard Williams, Director, screenplay Michael Mann, based on the novel "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris. Editor Dov Hoenig. Production design Mel Bourne. Camera Dante Spinotti. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Sound John Mitchell. Original music composed and performed by The Reds & Michel Rubini. Art director Jack Blackman. With William L. Petersen, Kim Greist, Brian Cox, Tom Noonan, Joan Allen, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, David Seaman.
Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).