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Flesh for Fantasy

Brett Ratner tarts up Red Dragon

The not-so-great American pastime of serial killing has splattered pop culture in recent years, but from the biopics of America's Most Unwanted to the nervy theatricality of Anthony Perkins, Kevin Spacey or even David Byrne (whose Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer" says it all), only one legend stands definitive: that of Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter. Within the performance of that other eerie Anthony -- Hopkins -- lies a ghastly assurance, long honed since his depraved turn in Richard Attenborough's Magic, that all shall be unwell. Nasty, effete Dr. Lecter is smarter than you, and if he doesn't like you, he'll eat you. What could be worse?

Then again -- in producer-think -- what could be better? Ultimately the game is all about the DVD boxed set, so now, following Jonathan Demme's superb Silence of the Lambs and Ridley Scott's ambitious but muddled Hannibal, comes the darkly dreamy Red Dragon, prequel to both and all-around temporal wig-out. Eleven years after Silence, Hopkins returns (sans discernible "digital facelift" suggested by early rumors, or nice work, if it's there) to play Lecter before FBI agent Clarice Starling stepped into the gristle. And yet somehow -- possibly because Harris' 1981 novel is very craftily adapted by Silence's screenwriter, Ted Tally -- this heavily Demme-inspired adaptation by crowd-pleaser Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour movies) makes said boxed set seem less tacky and actually kind of cool.

"But wait!" clamor the fervid fanboys of director Michael Mann. "What about Manhunter? That's the real adaptation of Red Dragon!"

Oh, shush. We'll get to it. Calm down, or I'll make fun of Heat.

To get on with it then, Red Dragon opens in Baltimore, circa 1980, where we meet -- with knowing titters -- eminent psychologist and brutal music critic Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins in hair dye). After a an upper-crusty dinner party -- guests riff on Horace, not the Knack -- he is visited by sensitive young detective Will Graham (Edward Norton), who has been conferring with the doctor regarding the dreaded Chesapeake Ripper and is on the brink of fingering the butcher. Thing is, Lecter is on extremely intimate terms with Graham's flesh-fancying quarry, so there's an ugly scuffle and we find ourselves in the midst of post-prologue opening titles, which feature a serial-killer scrapbook any goth would covet, flipped to the sound of one of Danny Elfman's most enthusiastic scores in years.

So off we go into the haunted house, and the ride is sleek, tinged with dark humor and robust to the eye, clearly a bid to romance us back into Hannibal's world. It works. By way of the montage of newspaper clippings, we learn that Hannibal is behind bars and the perilously empathetic Graham has nearly gone crackers. Yet still, catching up with the latter in his quiet, curiously underpopulated Florida neighborhood, FBI honcho Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel, admirably standing in for a younger Scott Glenn) needs Graham's unique gifts of instinct for a new case. So far, a literal lunatic has slaughtered two seemingly unrelated young families, one in Atlanta and one in Birmingham, one each during the two most recent full moons. With three weeks and change to the next one, Crawford prevails on Graham's compassion to roust him from early retirement.

Fortunately, even though this story may be overly familiar to many, Norton is magnetic as Graham, a character for which his nigh-to-cracking voice and struggle of will over vulnerability are extremely well suited. (It's no freakish Smoochy, but the guy's gotta eat.) Forensic flapdoodle is presented on a need-to-know basis as Graham promises his wife, Molly (Mary-Louise Parker), and son, Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones in a role that keeps getting renamed from the book), that he'll be careful this time. Yeah, sure. As he visits the crime scenes -- picking up clues such as talcum powder that'll make local cops seem stupid and the audience feel smart -- Graham gets into the mind of the killer again, and the hunt is on.

Obviously the role of Hannibal is a bit limited here as a result of his confinement in the absurdly medieval dungeon (reconstructed from Silence), where he's kept by jovial black guys and uppity psychologist Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald, reprising his role), whom the bad doctor says "fumbles at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty-girdle." But Hopkins' scenes perfectly showcase the character, and he vamps with brio, especially when Graham comes to call, seeking the criminal's perspective. The new killer -- whom tabloid punk-ass Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman, ideal) of The Tattler takes to calling the "Tooth Fairy" for the nasty bite marks he's leaving behind -- is proving elusive. What Graham doesn't understand quite quickly enough is that Hannibal is enjoying a covert master-ward relationship with the madman.

As promised, we can distinguish gritty Manhunter from the more fanciful Red Dragon in many ways. Stylistically, Mann's 1986 movie looks and feels like Miami Vice (Bad shirts! Campy overacting!) and employs a ludicrous amount of blue gel to tell us it's nighttime, whereas Red Dragon is lush throughout, from the Oscar-nominated thoroughbred cast to the gloriously dilapidated antebellum mansion of the killer, who thinks he is a dragon but is actually just Ralph Fiennes in his most creepily comfortable role since Schindler's List. It's with him -- it's his sad story, not Hannibal's -- that the movie hits its stride, and although his monster is seemingly less monstrous than Tom Noonan's previous portrayal, Fiennes brings to the role a fetishistic luridness (incorporating one hell of a temporary tattoo) that will linger in moviegoers' soft gray tissue.

But Ratner's vision, though impressive, is imperfect. He seems confused about where to amplify suspense, and -- unlike Mann -- he does not fully exploit the tension between Graham and his boss and son. Fortunately, Emily Watson comes to his rescue with her spot-on portrayal of the killer's blind girlfriend. She's a rich character who mishears "first date" as "fellate" and fondles tiger scrotums, and her rich performance works wonders in the absence of Jodie Foster. Now, if only they could remake Hannibal with the right actress before they assemble that boxed set.

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