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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?: Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) chews up more than the scenery in 'Red Dragon.'

The Old Devil

'Red Dragon' is better than we could have hoped

By Richard von Busack

MAKE FUN of Dino De Laurentiis' accent if you will, but the ancient showman was right. De Laurentiis told Entertainment Weekly that he remade Red Dragon to show audiences that moment where Dr. Hannibal Lecter was first taken into custody. It's a memorable sequence. At the symphony, Lecter winces through the playing of a flutist who comes in too early. Later, he serves the errant musician's sweetbreads to the orchestra's directors, quoting Horace's "Epistle to Albius Tibullus" as he pours the wine. After dinner is over and the guests have gone, Lecter has a visitor. It's Edward Norton, deeply touching as a gentle, modest and exhausted FBI agent. These scenes are presented with a great feeling for the essence of terror--of pity and fear blended. Black humor, like bitter chocolate, is dusted in the mix.

The opening was so good, I feared that there wasn't much hope for the rest of the film. But I was wrong. Red Dragon is based faithfully on Thomas Harris' first and best Lecter novel; the screenwriter is the skillful Ted Tally, who adapted the better-known Silence of the Lambs. Here, Norton's Will Graham is called out of retirement to find a schizophrenic lunatic who kills families. Stymied, the agent revisits Dr. Lecter, offering to trade prisoner's privileges for advice. The killer is a disfigured supervisor at a St. Louis photo lab. His name is Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), and he suffers from delusions, inflamed by one of William Blake's illustrations to the book of the Apocalypse (Rev. 12:3). Ironically, just in midrampage, he finds a chance for happiness with a blind girl (a poignant Emily Watson).

Red Dragon was previously made as Manhunter by director Michael Mann. In that version, Tom Noonan's Dolarhyde was so dangerous that the actor has battled typecasting ever since. But think of Noonan's monster in the context of a line about Fiennes' Dolarhyde: "He wasn't a freak; he was a man with a freak on his back." Noonan was the boogeyman. Fiennes is a fragile, twisted creature, kin to Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. The idea of a monster at the door is scary. Still, only the tragedy of wasted, isolated lives can bring out the depth in a horror story, to make it hurt and make it so very frightening.

The film is directed by Brent Ratner of Rush Hour. Seeing that snoozer, it's a surprise that he had a film like Red Dragon in him. But remember, here he has a script and a star. Here, Lecter's touchier, not as resigned to being caged. At this stage in the story, Lecter is still playing with his voice, seeking a way to hide his accent. Sometimes he mocks with a Southern drawl; other times with a Yankee bray. We can't tell where he's from, because he doesn't mean for us to guess. Let Hopkins be dismissive of the role, but he didn't know how to hold the screen until he started playing Hannibal the Cannibal. I wonder if Hopkins knows what his Lecter means. The doctor is the last gasp of elegance in terror, at one with Karloff and Lugosi and Christopher Lee. He's the last heir of a tradition now vanquished by CGI buggers and Arnold Vosloo's mummy.

Red Dragon (R; 126 min.), directed by Brett Ratner, written by Ted Tally, based on the book by Thomas Harris, photographed by Dante Spinotti and starring Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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