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Carefully, Carefully Playing for Creeps

The earnest 'Red Dragon' excels at unnerving viewers but seems subdued, saving its energy solely for Hannibal the Cannibal.


"Just like old times," smirks Hannibal Lecter, the most malevolent Cheshire cat the movies have ever known.

Old times indeed.

In a ritual that is becoming at least as reliable and likely more profitable than the swallows returning to Capistrano, Hannibal the Cannibal, the preeminent boogeyman of the modern era, is back on the screen in "Red Dragon."

This marks Dr. L's fourth appearance in a major motion picture in 16 years, as well as Anthony Hopkins' third crack at the part in a dozen. "Red Dragon" may also mark some kind of land speed record for Hollywood's returning to a book it's already successfully filmed: this particular Thomas Harris novel was previously made by Michael Mann as the 1986 "Manhunter" (with Brian Cox in the Lecter role).

The nominal reason to revisit the novel that introduced the doctor to his fan base was that a new film could be (and in fact is) more faithful to the book's ending, a deficiency that Hollywood has rarely thought to remedy before.

The reality, clearly, was that a chance to have Hopkins take on a character the readers of Entertainment Weekly called the most popular movie villain ever was too lucrative an opportunity for anyone to pass up.

Not screenwriter Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for "The Silence of the Lambs." Not commercially adroit young director Brett Ratner, who has made not one but two "Rush Hour" movies and is on tap to do the next "Superman." Not the kind of talented cast--Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman--that a play by Shakespeare would be flattered to attract.

This rush to profits has created a predictably efficient piece of business notable largely for its overwhelming creepiness, for an eagerness to create images you wish you hadn't seen, which, in this day and age, is of course the point. "Red Dragon" is a better film than "Hannibal" (that wouldn't be hard), but not in the class of "The Silence of the Lambs" or the underappreciated "Manhunter" in terms of sheer filmmaking.

What's lacking in "Red Dragon," not that anyone will much care, is to be expected, given all that history.

There's no freshness here, no sense of newness or discovery. In its place, there's an earnest desire not to drop the ball, a determination to risk as little as possible in keeping this golden egg from cracking wide open.

Because America loves Lecter, the film starts with an extended prequel, not in the book, that shows us the great man in his more anonymous days, when he could go to a concert and not have everyone in the audience wonder which orchestra member he was planning to eat. (It's the flautist, if you're curious.)

Capturing Lecter in that prequel is FBI investigator Will Graham (Norton), who is so scarred by the experience in more ways than one that he leaves the bureau and devotes himself to repairing boat engines and spending quality time with his wife, Molly (Parker), and their young son.

But then old boss Jack Crawford (Keitel) shows up with news of a new maniac on the loose, the kind of twisted ritual slaughterer that Graham, who has a gift for projecting himself into deviant minds, is especially good at bringing to justice.

Needing an expert opinion on the new killer, dubbed the Tooth Fairy by tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds (Hoffman), Graham goes to the horse's mouth, so to speak, visiting Lecter the caged lion behind the walls of an institution for the criminally insane.

In the Harris novel as well as in "Manhunter," the evildoer's identity is not a secret from the audience, and we get to meet dour Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes, taking the role Tom Noonan made memorable) and his attractive blind co-worker, Reba (Watson in place of "Manhunter's" Joan Allen). Where "Red Dragon" departs from its predecessor is in giving Dolarhyde a more extensive back story and spending more time with the William Blake illustration that gives the book its title.

All of "Red Dragon's" performers are unobjectionable, but the work seems more subdued and under wraps than you might expect, as if everyone feared getting in the way of the scare moments and the Hopkins theatrics that are the main attraction.

The actor, who was an Oscar-winning revelation in "The Silence of the Lambs," is still very much an eerie presence, but on this, the third time out, his performance is getting unavoidably mannered and familiar.

In this context, it's especially tonic to revisit the excellent performance Brian Cox gave in "Manhunter," to reexperience a Lecter who could chill the blood years before he became America's dark sweetheart, the man whose hate we love to experience.

MPAA rating: R, for violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality. Times guidelines: an NC-17 in a sane world.

'Red Dragon'

Anthony Hopkins...Hannibal Lecter

Edward Norton...Will Graham

Ralph Fiennes...Francis Dolarhyde

Harvey Keitel...Jack Crawford

Emily Watson...Reba McClane

Mary-Louise Parker...Molly Graham

Philip Seymour Hoffman...Freddy Lounds

A Universal Pictures and Dino De Laurentiis presentation in association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, released by Universal Pictures. Director Brett Ratner. Producers Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis. Executive producer Andrew Z. Davis. Screenplay Ted Tally, based on the book by Thomas Harris. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Mark Helfrich. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Kristi Zea. Art director Steve Saklad. Set decorator Karen O'Hara. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.

In general release.

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