No sautéed brain

Unlike last year’s Hannibal, Silence of the Lambs’ prequel Red Dragon doesn’t ruin the appetite

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Rated 4.0

Five years before 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, there was Manhunter, the first film featuring Hannibal Lecter. The film, based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, was directed by Michael Mann, and looked like a Miami Vice episode. Brian Cox played Lecter, with nothing very memorable about his characterization.

When Lambs was released, Anthony Hopkins claimed the role of Lecter, and the film had a darker treatment more in line with Harris’ style of writing. Jonathan Demme directed, and his movie is now considered a horror classic.

With the success of last year’s crappy Hannibal, it seems appropriate to go back and do the pre-Lambs story right. Hopkins agreed to reprise his role, Edward Norton signed on to play Special Agent Will Graham, and all that was needed was a director of great vision.

So whom do they call on? Brett Ratner, director of the Rush Hour movies. What the hell credentials does this guy have to direct a horror film in such a huge franchise?

Well somebody knew something, because Ratner does a fine job with Red Dragon. His inspiration is clearly Jonathan Demme and not Ridley Scott, who wound up embarrassing Hopkins in the Hannibal mess (Scott should not take full blame … Harris’ novel stunk).

The film opens with a beautiful scene of Lecter watching a symphonic performance, irked by a terrible flute player. Later that evening, Special Agent Graham, who has been consulting Lecter for psychological profiles in a grisly serial killer case, visits him. Graham has guessed that the killer he seeks is eating his victims, and let’s just say that the air during their meeting is quite tense.

Cut to a few years later, where Lecter is confined to prison and Graham is retired. Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), Graham’s former associate, seeks his help on a case called “The Tooth Fairy,” named so because the killer leaves distinctive bite marks on his victims. Graham comes out of retirement, and finds himself in the dungeon that would later be visited by Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling.

When Graham goes to visit Hannibal in prison, Ratner takes the opportunity to do a beautiful homage to Demme’s vision. The set looks exactly like that of Lambs, and the camera rolls down the hallway to Lecter’s cell. In Lambs, Lecter was standing at attention, ready to chat with Starling. Here, Ratner and Hopkins take a different approach, which had me laughing.

Hopkins portrays Lecter as a hissy, angry man, still keeping his composure, but obviously disgusted with Graham, the man who put him away. Norton does nice work with Graham, creating a humane, driven character that admires Lecter as much as he hates him. Yes, their moments together are reminiscent of scenes in Lambs, as are the presence of Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison, reprising their roles from that film as Dr. Chilton and caretaker Barney, respectively.

True to the novel, Ralph Fiennes is chilling as Francis Dolarhyde, The Tooth Fairy. Decked out in a full back tattoo and a facial scar, Fiennes is terrifying because his villainy isn’t evident until he’s in the presence of victims. Dolarhyde believes himself to be a mythical creature, and when he starts entering his fantasy world and his rage comes to he surface, it’s frightening.

Ratner has signed on to do the next Superman, and judging from Red Dragon, he certainly is capable of doing films beyond stupid Chris Tucker vehicles. Red Dragon is a nice throwback to the atmosphere of Lambs, and unlike the Hannibal misfire, a suitable entry to the series. It is safe to assume that this is the last time we will see Lecter, although the guy was running free, absent one hand, at the end of Hannibal, so anything is possible.