"Dragon" Roars 

"Red Dragon" is a suspenseful, harrowing thriller

He turns madman, killer and cannibal early, landing himself in that familiar cell in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where he is called upon to aid investigators in tracking a similar serial killer.

Hopkins, who won an Academy Award for playing the character for just 21 minutes in the 1991 film "The Silence of the Lambs," manages to add to his frightening characterization here. The younger Lecter has yet to acquire the quiet, slyly deceptive demeanor he had in "Silence." Here, he is more intense, more insane and more outwardly angry. Wisely, Hopkins has backed off the campy, cutesy touches that largely disfigured "Hannibal," last year's commercially successful but overdone sequel. He is much scarier and less silly here, yet the audience can't help laughing when he makes cracks about having people to dinner in an opening scene. The laughter, though, is more nervous than derisive.

Hopkins is supported by a superb cast. Edward Norton is acceptably heroic yet vulnerable as a retired FBI forensic investigator who is called back from his Florida retirement to try to capture a serial killer who has struck in Birmingham and Atlanta, and is expected to strike again when the moon is full. The killer is called The Tooth Fairy and his victims are sleeping families, butchered in a ritualistic manner. As both a brilliant psychiatrist and a cunning killer, Lecter knows how this man would think and is willing to help, for a price.

Norton's character has become famous as the man who arrested Hannibal the Cannibal. He is on a more even base with Lecter than was the novice Clarice Starling (played by both Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore in chronologically later versions).

Ralph Fiennes plays the tattooed and psychotic Tooth Fairy, a tormented nerd of the Norman Bates variety. Fiennes suggests that he, like Hopkins, knows how to underplay a villain to the point of inciting fear.

Harvey Keitel, as an aggressive detective and adviser to the FBI man, has relatively little to do. Even more wasted is Mary Louise Parker in the role of Norton's wife, waiting back in Florida to be menaced. Philip Seymour Hoffman, a notorious scene-stealer, does all he can with his role as a sleazy tabloid reporter who becomes a victim.

Emily Watson, who turned in one of her best performances in recent years in "Breaking the Waves," is assigned the role of the blind Reba. She sets about, unwisely, to seduce Fiennes' character — not an easy task. Watson lacks her usual vulnerability that makes audiences empathize with her.

"Red Dragon" — previously filmed as "Manhunter" in 1986 — is just as suspenseful as "The Silence of the Lambs." It is a genuine surprise coming from director Brett Ratner, whose efforts have included the comedies "Rush Hour" and "Money Talks," and the sentimental "The Family Man." His treatment of the material here is on a par with former directors of the material, Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott.

Rather than what might have been merely an effort to cash in on the Hannibal Lecter phenomenon, "Red Dragon" is a suspenseful, harrowing thriller that moves at an intense, though not frantic, pace. **** S


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