Review: A Fresh Meal For Dr. L

You knew when you first saw Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" that this screen fiend was one for the ages, a creation as indelible in his way as Bela Lugosi's Dracula. You knew as well that Hollywood was going to milk this monster for all he was worth. So the rush to film novelist Thomas Harris's "Hannibal," his next Lecter installment, was inevitable. The problem was, Harris got his own creation wrong. Did we really want to see a bon vivant Hannibal, strolling the streets of Florence and falling for Clarice Starling? Did we really want him turned into camp? The movie and the book were hits, but the disappointment was palpable. Both screenwriter Ted Tally (who'd written the script for "Lambs") and Jodie Foster turned the sequel down. "I just didn't know how to make that story work," says Tally. "I wasn't sure who I was supposed to root for."

According to studio executives and director Brett Ratner, who has brought the old beast back to nasty life in "Red Dragon," Hopkins was also wary of signing on to continue the Lecter legacy: he was afraid that Hannibal had become a parody. "The character has to be more evil, more angry," Ratner told the star. Tally came back to write the "Red Dragon" script, because Lecter was back behind bars where, dramatically speaking, he belonged. "Lecter's like dynamite packed into a tube," Tally says. "The tighter you pack him, the more explosive he is."

As Thomas Harris fans well know, "Red Dragon" was written years before "Lambs," and marked the first appearance of the former shrink Lecter. Instead of having Ms. Starling pick his twisted superbrain, it's the FBI agent Will Graham (played by Edward Norton) who now turns to the serial killer for advice in tracking a killer. This tale has been told on screen before as "Manhunter," a stylish 1986 Michael Mann thriller starring William Petersen as Graham. Lecter, who had no name-brand value at the time, was played, superbly, by Brian Cox. But he wasn't the main event. Mann was far more interested in the torment of Graham, a cop with the burdensome ability to imagine himself into the mind of his prey--a psychotic family-killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy," who replaces his victims' eyes with mirrors.

Ratner and Tally restore some of the plot twists and gory details Mann dispensed with, and have even interpolated a few scenes from the book "The Silence of the Lambs" that Jonathan Demme didn't use in his Oscar winner. The aim is clearly to make this prequel look as much as possible like a sequel to that film: the production designer, Kristy Zea, replicates Lecter's Gothic prison cell, and Anthony Heald is once more on hand to play the smarmy Dr. Chilton.

"Red Dragon" is certainly an improvement on "Hannibal." It has something the Ridley Scott movie didn't--a good story--and it will no doubt keep the franchise rolling in dough. But the fact that it now feels like a franchise is dispiriting: the thrills seem awfully familiar. Hopkins does get the ferocity back into Lecter. What he can't do (no one could now) is surprise us. Will Graham is the man who put Lecter in jail. Now he's hunting a schizophrenic killer named Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes). Lecter, ever the multitasker, not only helps Graham find his psycho but uses the psycho to take revenge on Graham.

The cast is studded with big names. Emily Watson is oddly chirpy as a blind girl who falls for Dolarhyde, but Mary-Louise Parker squeezes a lot of juice out of a small role as Graham's wife, and Harvey Keitel brings a bullish urgency as the head of a vast, efficient FBI team. (It's hard not to chuckle at the movie's awestruck portrait of the Feds, given recent demonstrations of their competence.) Norton, for the first time in his impressive career, seems lackluster. "Red Dragon" puts the shivers back in Lecter, but unlike "Lambs," it's not likely to haunt your dreams.