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. Thomas Harris' 1981 novel is very craftily adapted by Silence's screenwriter, Ted Tally, and Hopkins returns to play Lecter before FBI agent Clarice Starling stepped into the gristle.
Red Dragon opens in 1980 Baltimore, where we meet -- with knowing titters -- eminent psychologist and brutal music critic Hannibal Lecter (a hair-dyed Hopkins). Following an upper-crust dinner party, 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, and there's an ugly scuffle before we find ourselves in the midst of post-prologue opening titles.
Off we go into the haunted house, and the ride is a sleek bid to romance us back into Hannibal's world. It works. During a montage of newspaper clippings flipped to the sound of one of Danny Elfman's most enthusiastic scores in years, we learn that Hannibal is behind bars and the perilously empathetic Graham has nearly gone crackers. But FBI honcho Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) needs Graham's unique gift of instinct for a new case. A literal lunatic has slaughtered two seemingly unrelated young families during the most recent full moons. With three weeks until the next one, Crawford prevails upon Graham's compassion to roust him from early retirement.
Norton is magnetic as Graham, a character for which his cracking voice and struggle of will over vulnerability are well suited. Graham promises his wife, Molly (Mary-Louise Parker), and son, Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones), that he'll be careful this time. Yeah, sure. As he visits the crime scenes -- picking up clues that make local cops seem stupid and the audience feel smart -- Graham gets into the mind of the killer, and the hunt is on.
Obviously Hannibal's presence is a bit limited here because of his confinement. But Hopkins' scenes perfectly showcase the character, and he vamps with brio, especially when Graham comes 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 because of the nasty bite marks on the victims -- is proving quite elusive. What Graham doesn't understand quickly enough is that Hannibal is enjoying a covert master-ward relationship with the madman, who thinks he is a dragon but is actually just Ralph Fiennes in his most creepily comfortable role since Schindler's List. Fiennes brings to the part a fetishistic luridness (incorporating one hell of a temporary tattoo) that will linger in moviegoers' soft gray tissue.
Director Ratner's vision, though impressive, is imperfect. He seems confused about where to amplify suspense, and he doesn't fully exploit the tension in Graham's relationships with his boss and his son. Thankfully, Emily Watson comes to Ratner's rescue with her spot-on portrayal of the killer's blind girlfriend. Her rich performance works wonders in the absence of Jodie Foster. If only they could remake Hannibal with the right actress before the inevitable boxed set is assembled.