Some 20 years after we first made his acquaintance, it seems that everybody would like to have Hannibal Lecter over for dinner. Not a potluck, perhaps, but how about one of those murder-mystery gatherings where whoever's "it" picks off everybody else one by one? At the screening I attended of Red Dragon, which manages to seem like both a prequel and a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, I was literally surrounded by little old ladies, who apparently had nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon. And so there we were, waiting for Anthony Hopkins to scare the bejesus out of us. That we still had the bejesus inside us two hours later is a testament to both how game we've all become and how tame Hannibal the Cannibal has become. Yes, he's still capable of biting off your nose to spite your face, but at least you can always count on him saying "Thank you" afterwards.
As Hannibal's legions know, Red Dragon was the first of Thomas Harris' serial-killer novels, and it's already been made into a movie ' 1986's Manhunter ' once. But Michael Mann, who directed Manhunter (beautifully), committed the unpardonable sin of using non-stars in all the leading roles, so it's almost as if the movie doesn't exist. And when Hopkins agreed to plumb the depths of Lecter's fathomless mind for the third time, therefore, Red Dragon got the green light, green standing for "go," as in "Pass Go and Collect $200 Million." Director Brett Ratner, heretofore known for attaching Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan at the hip in Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2, promised us a Lecter who's the opposite of kinder and gentler. But setting aside the fact that he looks 10 years older, not 10 years younger, than in Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon's Lecter is a real pussycat.
Looking 10 years too young (the guy's supposed to have some miles on him), Edward Norton is Will Graham, the FBI profiler who, in the movie's opening sequence, puts Lecter in the basement cell that Clarice Starling will be visiting in a short while. If Clarice is a rookie who's in way over her head, Will is a veteran capable of holding his own in a tÃte-Ã-tÃte with the good doctor. He's supposed to have more or less invented the art and science of profiling, imagining his way into the killer's mind as a means of identifying him. When the novel came out, in 1981, profiling was relatively new, and it was as if Sherlock Holmes had been reborn as an FBI agent. But there's been an awful lot of profiling since then, both in the movies and on TV. (William Petersen, who played Graham in Manhunter, is now plying his trade on "CSI.") As a result, Norton's Graham doesn't get any extra points for tapping into the Psychic Fiends Network.
Alas, Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for his Silence of the Lambs script, hasn't given him much else to do. When Clarice was on duty, it wasn't just her gender that gave the movie a lift, it was also her lack of experience. We learned the ropes alongside her. But when Graham, having been coaxed out of retirement, agrees to help the FBI find "The Tooth Fairy" ' a serial killer (Ralph Fiennes) who likes to wipe out entire families, bite marks being one of his signatures ' the case seems almost too easy, with or without Lecter's assistance. You can sense Graham holding back, like a cat toying with a mouse, and this throws the movie off; Lecter's the one who should be doing the toying. Clarice had all those childhood demons she was battling ' the silent lambs that were about to be slaughtered. But Graham, except for a gaping hole in his side carved by Lecter, seems relatively demon-free.
Although Silence's Buffalo Bill, who couldn't find what he wanted at Jo-Ann Fabrics, is a tough act to follow, Red Dragon goes the artsy-fartsy route by giving "The Tooth Fairy" an obsession with William Blake. For not only does Fiennes' Francis Dolarhyde have a Blake painting tattooed all over his back and butt, he's using the murders to spiritually transform himself into a higher being ' God, perhaps. The role's an actor's dream, I suppose, but also a nightmare. Although Fiennes seems prepared to hurl himself into the void, the movie's incapable of achieving that level of pitch-black darkness. Many of us remember Tom Noonan's Dolarhyde in Manhunter, no matter how many times we've tried to forget him. With his egg-shaped head and his lanky frame, Noonan looked like The Grinch Who Massacred Christmas, but the Grinch wasn't nearly so handy with a 12-gauge shotgun.
It helped that Noonan was a nobody who didn't look like he'd ever become a movie star. (He seemed as freaky-deaky as the character he was playing.) Compare that to Hopkins, who's now one of the most well-known actors in the world, a veritable icon of evil. You can feel Hopkins trying to come up with something new in Red Dragon, the wretched excess of Hannibal having wrung him dry. But the material's either there or it's not, and Hopkins is forced to fall back on those vampire's eyes ' so alive, so dead. It's still fun to watch his sudden shifts from Jekyll to Hyde, from cordial to lethal. And there's still something deliciously evil about a cannibal who's into gourmet cooking. But Lecter seems to have lost some IQ points since his last outing. For instance, when he's back in Baltimore, not yet a murder suspect, he carelessly leaves out his copy of Larrousse Gastronomique, with an asterisk next to a sweetbread recipe.
One of the fascinating things about Hopkins' Lecter, when we first met him over 10 years ago, was that we didn't know his limitations. Could he escape from any cell? Talk you into anything? See right down to the depths of your soul? And how did you stop him? With silver bullets? A stake in the heart? In Red Dragon, his powers seem to vary according to the needs of the plot. In Lambs, they drove the plot.
Ratner has done his best to bring us those silent lambs all over again. He's gone with the first movie's somber shades of brown, gray and blue. And Danny Elfman's score is only slightly giddier than the last time. But there are too many "gotcha" moments and too much howling at the moon. We never got that good a look at Buffalo Bill ' he was kept in the shadows ' but Red Dragon is even named for its psycho. Letting it all hang out, Fiennes doesn't just howl at the moon, he shoots the moon.
Obviously, the whole return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime-story phenomenon is running out of creative steam. And serial killers, who were once so popular they had their own trading cards, now seem so very '90s. In that sense, Red Dragon could be described as the alpha and omega of our latest go-around with homicidal maniacs. The book ushered it in, and the movie ushers it out. Unless Lecter is sitting in a cell somewhere, sharpening his false teeth....