Film Review: Manhunter (1986)

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MANHUNTER
1986 | M | Crime, Horror, Mystery
Reviewed by Lukas

Former FBI profiler Will Graham returns to service to pursue a deranged serial murderer named “the Tooth Fairy” by the media.

Remakes and reboots of classic movies go back far earlier than you might think.

Since 1930’s Hollywood re-began, in fact.

Re-inventing was common. Considering the times of the Great Depression which lasted a better part of (but, really, clearly worse part) a decade, filmmakers and storytellers did their best to not only help boost morale of the general populous, but also gave way to inspire other creative people. Some might say it was a blessing in disguise.

Others might say it was an utter piece of shit of a time that no one should ever have to endure again.

While in recent years, we seem to see what can easily be perceived as an over-saturation of remakes and reboots, yet there are still a few that hold up and pay decent homage to the originals.

Today’s case is Michael Mann’s underrated classic: Manhunter.

No, 1986’s Manhunter is not a remake – it’s the original.

One of the most revered Hollywood writer/directors in modern cinema, Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, Heat) delivers us the story of newly retired FBI agent, Will Graham, brought back from retirement to track down a serial killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy”. While on the hunt for his man (sorry, I guess pun intended) and coming up short each time, Will faces the morally gut-wrenching task of asking his arch-nemesis for help. That man’s name – Hannibal Lecktor.

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Grissom, I mean, Graham meets Lecktor again for the first time.

While 1991’s Silence of the Lambs was when most were introduced to Hannibal Lecktor, it was 2002’s Red Dragon that was Manhunter’s direct remake. Although I haven’t watched Red Dragon in years, there are certain elements that always stick around, and, now having watched Manhunter, it’s very easy to see the similarities. Not to mention (yet, here we are) that in the successive adaptations, “Lecktor” is spelled different ways. Look, that’s neither here nor there, just wanted to clarify it before the serial killing geeks get nasty on Twitter.

Manhunter stars William Petersen in the lead role of Will Graham.

You might remember Petersen from his role as the crime scene investigator, Gil Grissom in TV’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (duh!). Now, take a second to look at the character names here… Will Graham and Gil Grissom. Do I need to say similar? Could it be a conspiracy? Also, the fact that both of these characters utterly immerse themselves into the forensic sciences. Coincidence? I think not.

Although the dialogue and characters are well thought out and written in Manhunter, occasionally it’s difficult to see the real arcs. Graham would talk to himself to the imaginary killer, not verbatim, but “You’re out there, I know it, you sick bastard, I will find you, oh yes, I WILL. FIND. YOU”, which I think probably looked fine on the script’s page, but felt clichéd, at the end of the day like an old film noire flick. I guess that Manhunter really is noire in the grand scheme of things, but having just a few of these types of personal-monologues spread sparsely, it becomes an oddity and didn’t seem to fit the rest of the movie’s style.

But, maybe as an afterthought, that was the impression that Michael Mann wanted or William Petersen himself got to as an actor. Maybe the intention was that Petersen’s character was falling into this wasteland of a pre-described oblivion, just as the serial killer had? The neurotic “talking to oneself” aspect and constant forensic inspection?

Probably right. But as a first view, I didn’t feel it.

Second time, yes. Most definitely.

Another area I found to be overlooked was the gravity of the relationship between Graham and Lecktor (played by veteran actor Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity, Braveheart, The Long Kiss Goodnight). From what in the beginning of the piece was made out to be a ground-breaking catalyst, fell quite flat and non-eventful. It was OK.

Like the fireworks you were promised, but only sparklers were supplied. And no party bags. Or cake.

Yep, not even cake.

As with most remakes post-1995, action special effects, music composition and more mainstream actors playing major roles, Red Dragon plays to its strengths in this way. Manhunter didn’t really have a composed soundtrack, more of a collection of songs used to carry certain scenes into transition, but they’d come to odd abrupt stops which didn’t take long to bug me.

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Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde, “The Tooth Fairy”, in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter”.

On the other hand, certain editing techniques I found really interesting and not often used before, but can be found today in indie cinema, if you look for them. The final “battle” scene is a great example of this, some very strategic chops make for a wonderfully jarring effect.

I noticed a couple of what might be called ‘bloopers’ – stacks of file papers falling from a chair that gets ignored and a clearly dead killer brilliantly not hiding a very distinct “swallow” even after taking 6 bullet slugs to the body.

If you’re into thrillers and overall cinema education, Manhunter is definitely worth a watch, even just for the indulgence that it’s the predecessor to Red Dragon. The writing itself I give a solid 8/10 (except for the bits I mentioned) and everything else rates between 6.5 and 7, respectfully. Even though it can be thought of as a slasher movie, it’s far less graphic than Red Dragon.

On a side bit of trivia, actor Frankie Faison plays in all four of these “Hannibal” movies, albeit different roles. Whenever I see Frankie, I’m always taken back to a great line he says in Coming to America… “Does your apartment look poor?” “Yeah. It’s a real shit-hole. You’ll love it.” Aaah… it’s the simple things.

OVERALL RATING

3.5-stars

Full review here.