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*Red Dragon (R)
Universal Pictures

It feels like a small crime to recommend this movie, based on the first of Thomas Harris' three Hannibal Lecter novels. A perfectly respectable version was already made in 1986 by director Michael Mann. That version, Manhunter, concentrated less on murderer Frances Dolarhyde, creepily played by Ken Noonan, far less on imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, deliciously played by lizardly Brian Cox, and more on the astute skills of FBI profiler Will Graham.

But as part of the trilogy that includes Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs and Ridley Scott's over-the-top Hannibal, Brett Ratner's Red Dragon succeeds and measures up. It lacks the humor of Silence but avoids the excess of Hannibal, and brings to the table a keen interest in the murderer's psyche. Ted Tally's script plays with the notion of seeing and not seeing, being invisible and being seen, seducing us at times and, at others, making us want to close our eyes for fear of what we might see next.

Red Dragon opens with a view of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) prior to his arrest for the nasty habit of cannibalizing those whose tastes offend him. Sitting in the audience at a symphony orchestra performance, his attention is riveted on a violinist who's playing out of key -- silently signaling the guy's fate. Sure enough, in the next scene, the symphony board are dining on the poor sap's juicy tenderloin. A late-night visit from FBI agent Graham (Edward Norton) culminates in a vicious fight, Graham's stabbing, Lecter's shooting and his ultimate arrest.

Fast-forward a few years to a beach in Florida where Graham has retired with wife Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and son Josh. A visit from fellow agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) draws him back to work, trying to sort out clues from the murders of two families in two different cities, and eventually leads him back to Dr. Lecter for help profiling the murderer. Their prison visits are interspersed throughout the film -- verbal volleys with the requisite tension and hidden clues we've come to expect in these films.

As Graham pursues Dolarhyde, he's dogged by a tabloid reporter played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film's best, if short-lived, characterization. Hoffman provides just a hint of comic relief and actualizes the kind of nail-biting fascination and fear the audience is feeling. In another significant supporting role, Emily Watson plays a blind co-worker of Dolarhyde whose trust and affection almost redeem him but ultimately send him over the edge. Watson is warm and intelligent, breathing some humanity into Dolarhyde's otherwise cold, clammy cave of terror.

The use of voiceover flashbacks to invoke Dolarhyde's evil granny, threatening to cut off the little boy's tallywacker, is a clumsy attempt to humanize and create sympathy for the murderer. As deranged Dolarhyde, Ralph Fiennes' facial expressions accomplish that task adequately.

Hopkins has internalized the role of Lecter so thoroughly by now that he barely moves or blinks when delivering his virulent lines. Norton is fresh and straightforward as Graham, carefully maintaining his distance from Lecter while becoming consumed with the psyche of Dolarhyde. A thrilling musical score by Danny Elfman drives Red Dragon and provides many crowd-rousing moments.

Red Dragon echoes its predecessors in its choice of color and lighting -- rich reds, lush sets, lots of dark corners -- and competently completes the trilogy, likely retiring Hopkins' famous Dr. Lecter for good.

Let's hope so anyway. The psychopath as mastermind myth is beginning to feel a little too comfortable and familiar, especially in a time when the last thing that needs to be romanticized is malevolence.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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