Lecter series: Red Dragon has bite

It's hard to imagine anyone in Hollywood having the imagination to look at the Rush Hour movies and choose director Brett Ratner to helm a first-class thriller, the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

 Well, it was a stroke of genius. Whatever you thought of Hannibal, Red Dragon is more of a grisly, straight-ahead thriller like Silence, with intelligent confrontations as well as suspense and action sequences and dark humor. There's the addition of a subplot that humanizes the killer– not the charmingly despicable Hannibal Lecter, but the one the FBI consults Lecter for help in capturing.

Red Dragon was filmed before, in 1986, as Manhunter. It wasn't bad and commands a considerable cult to this day, but once Anthony Hopkins made his indelible impression as Lecter, it was unofficially relegated to the bush leagues in an alternate universe. (Poor Brian Cox, the original Lecter, has never gotten his due, despite marvelous performances in a number of films.)

I'll leave it to someone more detail-oriented to compare the two film versions, and each to the original novel, but Red Dragon can stand on its own for viewers unfamiliar with the books, Manhunter, or the rest of the Hopkins-as-Lecter trilogy.

Adapted by Silence screenwriter Ted Tally, Red Dragon is reportedly more faithful to the original novel, including a prologue the author added later. What's more important is how well it works as a movie, and that's very well indeed.

A pre-title sequence shows how FBI Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) apprehended Lecter in the first place, almost dying in the process. Lecter is institutionalized for several lifetimes, and Graham retires to Marathon, Florida, where he spends his time "fixin' boat motors" and living in peace with his wife, Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and their son, Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones).

Since a feature film has to run longer than 10 minutes, the family's idyllic existence is interrupted by Agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), who needs Will's unique profiling ability to catch a new serial killer, dubbed "The Tooth Fairy" by tabloids for the bite marks he leaves on his victims.

Families have been killed in Birmingham and Atlanta a month apart, during full moons. The FBI has three weeks until the next full moon to catch the killer before he strikes again. Soon Will is seeking advice from Hannibal, who not only understands the killer but gets fan mail from him.

Lecter plays as much as he's being played, telling Graham, "We're very much alike. Without our imaginations we'd be very much like all those other poor dullards," and suggesting that if Will wants to find a connection between the victims, he has to "see them living."

Around this time we meet Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), known as "D," who is more emotionally than physically scarred by growing up with his grandmother's abuse. He's kind of a Norman Bates 2.0, and it's not hard to figure out how he fits into the plot. He befriends Reba McClane (Emily Watson), a blind woman who works in the dark room of the photo processing plant where he's employed.

As they grow closer, it's more like Frankenstein's monster and the little girl than King Kong and Fay Wray, because she's totally unaware of the danger she's in. While she learns of D's good side, we learn of his obsession with a William Blake painting of a red dragon, which serves as his role model, mentor, and tormentor. Their potential love story makes what D has become and is becoming that much more tragic.

The first of two climactic sequences involves fire and explosion effects of lesser quality than the rest of the film, but Danny Elfman's score is a definite plus.

It's almost amusing to hear Fiennes and Watson struggle with American accents, but their performances are otherwise impeccable, possibly the best supporting work in these films outside of Hopkins'. And yes, Hannibal's a supporting character again– much as he was in The Silence of the Lambs, even though Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar for it. Either way, he adds to the legend.

Philip Seymour Hoffman effectively plays a sleazy tabloid reporter who is used by the FBI to bait the man they're after. The weak link among the performances is Norton in the "Jodie Foster role." He does nothing wrong, but it's bad casting. He's not weak enough to hurt, but if he were stronger it would make the film even better than it is.

News of a Hannibal sequel may surface before this review hits the street. With the money Red Dragon is bound to make, it's inevitable, and as long as they can keep making them this good, I have no complaints.