Rated R - Running Time: 2:05 - Released 10/4/02

While I admit I'm not a particularly devoted fan of horror thrillers, when a movie is good, it's good. Just like its predecessor, The Silence Of The Lambs, Brett Ratner's prequel Red Dragon contains some of the most effectively executed horror I've seen in a long time, and is so packed with good acting it's hard to know where to begin praising it. This is not the first adaptation of Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon (the premier chapter of the story continued by 1991's Lambs and last year's noticeably inferior Hannibal); it was produced in a 1986 film by Michael Mann called Manhunter, with a completely different cast. Although that version got good notices, I can't imagine it's any better than this one, written by Ted Tally, who also penned Lambs. In addition to Anthony Hopkins, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal in that film of cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, the cast list is a veritable dream team of acting talent, including Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, and Emily Watson, every one of whom has been nominated for at least one Academy Award, and talented supporting players like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Anthony Heald, who re-creates his character of stupid and sadistic prison warden Dr. Frederick Chilton. The performances of this high-pedigree cast, coupled with the textual subtleties of Harris's novel and Tally's screenplay, and the skillful direction of Brett Ratner on his first horror effort (after directing comedies like Rush Hour and Family Man), all combine to make this an intense and truly memorable production.

At the start in 1980, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) is not only a free man, but a highly placed member of Baltimore society and a trusted friend and advisor to FBI Detective Will Graham (Norton), who makes use of Lecter's incredible intellect and reasoning skills while trying to solve crimes. What Will doesn't know is that the suspect in his current case, a serial killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper, is none other than Lecter himself, who cooks up the remains of his victims in gourmet style and serves them to his high-society dinner guests. Will doesn't know, that is, until Dr. Lecter attempts to remove his liver to use as the main course for his next meal. A bloody encounter ends in both men being badly injured, but Lecter is caught and incarcerated.

Cut to several years later. Will has retired, but is called on by his former boss, Jack Crawford (Keitel), who hopes he can help in apprehending a vicious killer known only as the Tooth Fairy, for the irregular bite marks left on his victims' bodies. The killer is actually Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes), a full-blown psycho with a cleft palate, repressed mother issues, and a full-back tattoo who kills to honor his master, the Red Dragon. It seems the only way to apprehend him is to get into his twisted mind, and the only one who can do that is Will, with the help of his old friend and assailant, Dr. Lecter.

Although there are some flaws in this picture, including some rather overexpository early dialogue (characters explain things to each other, for our benefit, that would really not need explaining in real life), it is for the most part an incredibly haunting and effective thriller. When I saw Norton walking down that good old hallway toward that solitary folding chair outside Lecter's good old plexiglass-encased cell, just like Jodie Foster did in 1991, I couldn't help having a few pangs of nostalgia. But it's what's new in this story that really takes the cake: Fiennes, with his ill-fitting dentures, is a creature like I've not seen him since Schindler's List, but less predictable and therefore, somehow, more scary. Watson, portraying a comely blind co-worker who goes out with Dolarhyde, is riveting as she attempts, with those huge, useless blue eyes, innocently, playfully, to plumb the depths of her new lover's unfathomably dark psyche. Hoffman is disturbingly effective as a slimy tabloid newsman who gets in the worst place at the wrong time. And of course there are Hopkins and Norton, engaged not only in a psychologically subtle cat-and-mouse game, but seemingly in a contest to see who can give the better performance. I'm happy to report it's a four-way tie. *****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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