"Any rational society would either kill me or put me to good use," declares Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, a thriller that could make better use of him itself. Recently selected by the Online Film Critics Society as runner-up to Darth Vader for the title of greatest movie villain of all time, Dr. Lecter is missing from most of the film’s key scenes. The bulk of attention goes to another serial killer, one who becomes furious when called the Tooth Fairy, preferring to be identified instead as the Red Dragon, a creature much more sinister and powerful.
Still, Anthony Hopkins immerses himself again in his Oscar-winning Hannibal the Cannibal role and makes the most of his time on camera. "What’s so fascinating about Lecter," Hopkins says, "is that he is the dark side of every human being. Hannibal makes people face up to their lies and their shadows and the dark sides of themselves."
Hopkins looks younger here than he did in Hannibal, thanks to the miracles achieved by make-up artists. That’s important, for this story is a prequel to Silence of the Lambs and takes place many years earlier. Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) explains, "Hannibal is the same guy in Red Dragon that he is in Silence of the Lambs, but at a different time in his life – at the beginning of his incarceration. He has yet to find the level of stillness he may have had in Silence. At this point, he is more intense, more insane and much angrier."
When Will Graham, a former FBI investigator responsible for Dr. Lecter’s imprisonment, gets called back to help solve the Tooth Fairy (Ray Fiennes) murders, he decides to seek assistance from Lecter. One of today’s finest young actors, Edward Norton (The Score) endows Graham with sensitivity, intelligence, and – yes, fear. After all, Lecter almost killed this FBI man once. He’s entitled to be afraid. Norton admits Will Graham is in the "Clarice Starling seat" but argues, "He’s not the novice she was – he’s not out of his league with Lecter. Their mutual hatred coexists with a great deal of intellectual and professional admiration."
In their few scenes together, Hopkins and Norton are a winning combination. Interacting eyeball-to-eyeball and toe-to-toe, they turn the screen into a cauldron of tension and suspense just by looking at each other. Nevertheless, the best performance in Red Dragon comes from Fiennes (The English Patient). Yikes! Did I just write that? It’s hard to believe, for I’ve found this British actor bland and uninteresting in his other films. Why is he so much better in this movie?
His unusual role probably has something to do with it. Serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, obsessed with visionary British artist and poet William Blake’s illustrated "Auguries of Innocence," is consumed with the concept of transformation – and tries to transform himself into The Red Dragon by brutally killing selected families. Fiennes never falters in his convincing projection of Dolarhyde’s torment as well as his dark side. That awesome tattoo on his back helps, too.
Red Dragon also features fine supporting performances from Harvey Keitel as the FBI’s chief investigator, Emily Watson as a blind woman attracted to Dolarhyde, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an annorying tabloid reporter, and Anthony Heald as an arrogant prison psychiatrist.
Red Dragon may not be as stylish as Manhunter (the first film version of Thomas Harris’ "Red Dragon" novel), as involving as Silence of the Lambs, nor as cinematically stunning as last year’s Hannibal, but it emerges as a more than satisfactory addition to the mythology of Hannibal Lecter.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for violence, grisly images, some nudity and sexuality)