The Test of Time: Manhunter (1986)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Michael Mann

Starring: William Petersen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, and Tom Noonan

Franchises are a weird thing. All of them last longer than they should (Police Academy? Saw? The list goes on), but depending on the strength of the thing, it’ll either ride that storm to stay alive (see Bond) or disappear into obscurity.

Now back in 1986, I’d have to wager a hell of a bet (at least $35) that no one predicted that Hannibal Lecter would still remain relevant in pop culture 30 freakin years later (Red Dragon was published in 1981). After Silence of the Lambs created a horror character that showed it could be done well as an Oscar-winning film, its follow up, Hannibal was...kinda shitty. However, producer Dino De Laurentiis and company somehow managed to keep the thing chugging along year after year until the franchise officially died with Hannibal Rising. With Hopkins having no interest and author Thomas Harris not writing, the character was six feet under.

Nevertheless, the fantastic TV series Hannibal proves its a franchise worth keeping alive. Since its back in pop culture as actor Mads Mikkelsen made the role his own, let’s look at the good doctor’s first appearance to see if it stands the Test of Time.

Under the examination: Manhunter.

Now that's an action shot.

THE STORY: Based on the novel Red Dragon, Manhunter is about burned out FBI weirdo named Will Graham, who gets a little too close to his cases. He left the FBI behind until a murderer named the Tooth Fairy has the cops baffled as he's killing families. In order to understand this new evil, Will decides to meet with his old evil that left he burned out: Dr. Lecktor (how this movie spells it). Meanwhile, the killer Francis Dollarhyde (great name) tries to balance his job, his love life, and killing people. That’s a lot of shit to balance.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: One of my favorite parts of Manhunter is the music, which at times sounds like a mix between John Carpenter and Blade Runner. It’s creates movement and tension when there isn’t much going on screen, giving the whole production a steady stylistic heartbeat. At the same time, it’s interesting to see how much influence Manhunter had on future cop dramas. Sure, this movie died at the box office, but a lot of the genre shows follow the burn out cop who can see things no one else can see. It's nearly cliched now, but this movie does that right. 

Petersen is good as Will Graham, and it’s obvious how much he seemed influenced in his later CSI work because Manhunter works damn good as a police procedure movie, or I guess a detective procedure. Once he starts investigating the case looking at every minute clue like Columbo while talking to himself (with and without a tape recorder), it's sucks you into his process. It’s fascinating once the Tooth Fairy contacts Lecktor with a decoded message, and the FBI gets all detective with it. Those moments are the strength of the movie.

Hannibal #1 is pure and white. So squeaky clean. 

It’s hard to watch Brian Cox and NOT compare the dude to Anthony Hopkins. In way, I feel bad for the guy. Only five years later, Hopkins became a superstar in the role. Anyway, Cox is good here, doing his own thing in the role. He’s a little calmer, a little more annoyed, and a little less sophisticated. While Silence of the Lambs placed the doctor in a dungeon, Lecktor resides in a perfectly pure white cell, which ends up equally creepy. I would have enjoyed seeing Cox in the role again. The same could be said for Tom Noonan (you know, the great villain of Robocop 2). He’s a big dude with such a soft delivery that’s frightening and gets to deliver the most quotable elements of the movie (“Do you see?”).

WHAT BLOWS NOW: With this being a Michael Mann production at the height of his Miami Vice powers, Manhunter is undeniably dated. It’s not so much that the outfits (which are horrendous) and styles (color overdose) look old, but it’s Mann’s highly stylized look that just doesn’t hold with age. All the characters look like they're too cool for whatever they're doing, and sometimes we're supposed to be wowed watching them be all cool. Instead, some scenes end up dull, which is a little tough to get passed in many spots. The entire movie reeks of cheapness, and plays like a TV movie of the week (by the way, the director's cut looks like it was recorded by recording a VHS on TV). Which is too bad.

Mr. Mann loves him some blue.

Now, one thing I can’t do is play the compare and contrast game with Red Dragon. This is a different animal. Manhunter plays slower, more drawn out. Hell, Will’s introduction on the beach where Jack Crawford (first played by the late Dennis Farina) brings him back on duty doesn’t exactly ignite the screen with interest.

Petersen plays the character so beaten and haunted that he takes a while to get interesting. Will’s family elements always stop the flow, as does Dollarhyde’s courting of his blind co-worker. These scenes aren’t bad, but they go on a little too long and end up playing more like filler rather than character development. Oh sure, the scenes do build character, but they could be a little more entertaining (mainly Will's stuff).

THE VERDICT: I’m afraid time hasn’t been kind to Manhunter, and it’s nearly impossible to watch the first movie without ever comparing it to what came after. And if you compare it, the flick doesn’t hold. But even by itself, Manhunter ends up a decent cop thriller with some memorable characters, some good scenes, and pair of damn good villains, but it falls short of remaining a classic.

The Tooth Fairy needs to get out of the house more.





Latest Movie News Headlines