BY LYNN LEE
Think Indiana Jones.
Yes, I know that isn’t the first thought that comes to mind in conjunction with Red Dragon — but stay with me.
Consider a trilogy that’s become more of a character franchise. A franchise built off a genuinely original blockbuster that had audiences riveted in their seats, with a character that has since become ensconced in pop culture lore. And after a misstep with a gaudy, grotesquely over-the-top second episode, a canny return to form — or formula — in the third installment, which closely tracks many of the elements that made the first a hit.
Those who loved Silence of the Lambs but hated Hannibal can take heart: Because Red Dragon follows the pattern just described, it will no doubt prove more palatable than its immediate predecessor. The movie gets down to business quickly, aiming for genuine scares rather than shock value; the suspense is competently sustained, and there is some very good acting in patches, though less than might be expected from an absolutely stellar cast. What it lacks is the kind of hit-you-in-the-gut impact that the original had.
For the uninitiated, Red Dragon is the prequel to Silence of the Lambs. It begins by showing how Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a.k.a. the “Cannibal,” was caught, and by whom. The FBI agent who bags him, Will Graham (Ed Norton), almost dies in the process, and subsequently takes an early semi-retirement in Florida with his wife and son. Some years later, his old boss Crawford (played here by Harvey Keitel), solicits his assistance in a case involving a serial killer (Ralph Fiennes) dubbed the “Tooth Fairy.” At Crawford’s urging, Graham picks the brain of his old nemesis, Dr. Lecter, now locked away in the same maximum-security cell where we saw him in Lambs (complete with the same personnel and the same smarmy prison psychiatrist to torment him). But Lecter, wily as ever, ends up playing a nasty double game with Graham and the killer, who regards the good doctor as his role model.
If you think more murders are in store, you’re right. If you think the movie milks the prequel factor for all that it’s worth, you’re right about that, too — down to the last, totally shameless line of the movie.
Lecter is at once the main draw and the main problem of the film, and it shows in Hopkins’ performance. He’s practically patented the character, and at times he rides the fine line of self-parody. The whiff of ham may not be entirely his fault: What made him so effective in Lambs was the fact that we didn’t know then what he was capable of, except by oblique references. (How chilling was Jodie Foster’s simple response “No, you ate them,” when he pointed out that he, unlike other killers, didn’t keep mementos of his victims?) The menace was more sheathed — so when he finally did strike, it was all the more terrifying. By now, even if you haven’t seen Lambs, you know where the demon lurks. You can hear it in his voice. It sounds flatter, more sibilant, more decayed and repulsive than in Lambs, even though that film is supposed to come later. It’s especially jarring by contrast with the brief pre-imprisonment sequence at the beginning, when we hear him discourse in perfectly normal, non-Hannibal Anthony Hopkins diction.
That sequence, incidentally, underscores the difference between the two films. Those polished cadences, and the impeccable table he lays for his guests, pose a darkly humorous contrast to the macabre amuse-bouche he’s serving them… but in a way, the zap is gone. As in Indiana’s Last Crusade, we know the game. We get sly humor in place of that indefinable sense of unease, of not knowing what to expect, that haunted us in the first episode.
This is not necessarily always a net loss. There are witty touches, particularly in the opening scenes, that add a welcome sparkle to Red Dragon. But the rest of the film tries too hard both to recreate the psychological probing of Lambs and to dish up a conventional Hollywood recipe for suspense thrillers. After some colorful detours, it falls into the all-too-familiar rhythm of the standard cat-and-mouse plot involving a serial killer and the cop trying to catch him, partly livened by crisp direction and a clever nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
The weird rapport between Lecter and Graham is potentially as thought-provoking as that between Lecter and Clarice, but here it’s less subtle because of the way the plot is structured. Ed Norton is merely adequate as Hannibal’s pre-Clarice protégé. He does have one moment at the film’s climax where he shows a glimmer of the talent that’s made him a star — a moment that would otherwise be rather hokey, but which he makes work. As for the rest of the cast, Fiennes is a surprisingly compelling psycho, and brings dramatic heft to even his most absurd bouts of (literal) scenery-chewing. Keitel is merely rote (Crawford here is far less interesting a character than in Lambs), and the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffmann pops up as a sleazy tabloid journalist — amusing in a cheap-laughs sort of way, though he, too, has a fine moment where he bursts into brilliance.
It’s the women who are wasted in this movie (posing another unfavorable contrast to Lambs), with the gifted Emily Watson trapped in a stunt casting as a blind woman who falls for the Tooth Fairy, while the equally gifted Mary-Louise Parker fills the stock role of Graham’s long-suffering wife.
In the end, Red Dragon succeeds on its own terms. It is scary and suspenseful, in a flashier, less enigmatic way than Silence of the Lambs. (The difference in the titles is telling.) It painstakingly reminds us of why Hopkins’ Lecter has left such an indelible mark on the popular imagination. But it also suggests that it may be high time for Hannibal to leave the building. Three courses is enough.