Finally, Hannibal Lecter gets his just desserts. Supremely ill-served by last year's "Hannibal" -- which rested somewhere between Ã?lameÃ? and Ã?execrableÃ? -- the good doctor resurfaces in a film that represents a respectable leap after his career height, "The Silence of the Lambs." "Silence" screenwriter Ted Tally, who sat out "Hannibal," is back on board, and tips of the hat abound: Even the titles that announce changes of time and location are printed in a near-identical font.
To rescue Lecter's villainous reputation, director Brett Ratner ("The Family Man," the "Rush Hour" series) has gone back to the very beginning, adapting the 1981 novel in which Thomas Harris introduced his now-notorious flesh-eater. As "Red Dragon" begins, the Epicurean butcher (Anthony Hopkins) is captured by Will Graham (Edward Norton), an ace FBI investigator cursed with unequaled insight into the workings of psychopaths. Lecter is consigned to a mental hospital, and Graham is enlisted to track down a new menace, a home invader who slaughters entire families as part of a bizarre program of self-transformation. The killer's habit of leaving teeth marks on his victims earns him the nickname of the Tooth Fairy, though he fancies himself the Red Dragon. To clip the Dragon's wings, Graham has to wrest expert analysis from Lecter -- who would just as soon see the lawman dead as volunteer his aid.
The story was first put to film in 1986 as "Manhunter," a liberal translation directed by "Miami Vice" creator Michael Mann. In both that film and the book, Lecter was little more than a spur to the game of cat-and-mouse between Graham and the Dragon (played here to chilling effect by Ralph Fiennes). The new film expands the doctor's role by a handful of scenes, and most of them work on one level or another. Hopkins' intensity is renewed (gone are the Freddy Krueger-isms of "Hannibal"), which compensates for some lapses in logic: Giving this dangerous inmate more to do requires some suspiciously lax security measures. The added material has to be made up somewhere, and Ratner and Tally choose to reduce Graham's relationship with his long-suffering wife (Mary Louise Parker) -- a key element of the book -- to near-nothingness.
"Red Dragon," though, reinstates its titular villain's backstory, a horrific history of abuse that was ignored in "Manhunter." Ratner clearly wants to bring human sympathy back to the Harris-derived films, a noble crusade after "Hannibal" performed the curious and unwanted trick of putting the fun back in disembowelment. The director has assembled a stellar supporting cast, including Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they reinforce the realism Ratner brings to the look and feel of the picture. It's odd to think that his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, performed the same job on "Manhunter," which was full of pretty characters and immaculately lit architecture. "Hannibal," too, emphasized style over substance, but Ratner wisely pursues familiarity. Red Dragon reaffirms the "Silence" thesis that depravity is most unnerving when it appears to occur on the street where you live.