Some movie characters burn themselves into your mind by inspiring love, some by awakening fear. High on the short list of the latter category is Hannibal Lecter, the suave and brilliant serial killer portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs, "Hannibal" and the gruesome, effective new thriller "Red Dragon."
Hopkins' Hannibal has one of the requisite qualities of many great movie villains: He relishes his own villainy. Hopkins plays Hannibal, a murderous epicure who likes to eat his dead, with just the right note of quiet, gleeful menace, a thin smile and glittering eye that suggest that both the character and the actor are several cuts above the sordid, bloody antics around him.
That they are. Hannibal is a classic example of the courtly, well-bred fiend, someone who, like Dracula, mixes worldly sophistication with unrestrained evil. Though the stories in the three movies in which Hannibal appears aren't consistently inspired, the character is.
That's why Hopkins' Hannibal gets his third showcase in "Red Dragon," a movie based on the 1981 Thomas Harris novel that introduced the character, and which has been filmed once before as "Manhunter," the 1986 Michael Mann movie in which Brian Cox ("L.I.E.") played Lecter.
"Red Dragon" is less baroque and showy than "Hannibal," and less emotionally affecting than "Silence." But, like "Silence," it's a movie that gets under your skin. As a director, Brett Ratner may be nowhere near the artist that Ridley Scott ("Hannibal") is; indeed, if you remember Ratner's previous films, the Jackie Chan "Rush Hour" comedies and the sappy inspirational fantasy "The Family Man," it's hard to think of him as an artist at all. But Ratner and his scriptwriter, Ted Tally, respect the material more. A highly skilled technician working with a superb cinematographer (Dante Spinotti, who also shot ?o"Manhunter"), Ratner is not afraid to ease into the horror.
Wisely, Ratner defers to Hopkins and to the rest of the classy cast: Edward Norton as retired cop Will Graham; Ralph Fiennes as serial killer Francis Dolarhyde; Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Dolarhyde's blind co-worker; Philip Seymour Hoffman as the wonderfully sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds; and Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford, the hard-bitten detective who gets Will back on the job.
Because of this cast, the movie has a richer sense of humanity than Harris' original novel, which in some ways was the rough draft for "Silence" (published in 1988). The two books, and movies, have almost the same plot: An unusually sensitive cop (Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling in "Silence," Norton's Will in "Dragon") tries to use Hannibal to help catch an even more maniacal serial killer. In the case of "Dragon," it's "the Tooth Fairy," a lunatic who slaughters sleeping families during the full moon and drives shards of broken mirrors into their eyes.
Each time out, Hopkins has played Hannibal with a consummate blend of understatement and playful sadism. Hopkins makes a believably brainy psychologist/author and a believably grisly killer. And when he stares out with those quietly fierce, bemused and chilly blue eyes, you can imagine depths of cruelty peeking out.
The power of the character and Hopkins' performance lies in his intelligence and his unshakable self-regard. So completely does Hannibal believe in himself, and so endlessly resourceful is he as doctor and killer, that he shakes us up, makes us wonder if good can really triumph over him. That's crucial for a picture like "Red Dragon," which, on one level, is a formula thriller.
In "Manhunter," Cox's Hannibal had only two scenes. Tally, following the book more closely, gives Hopkins more to do, and the movie would be better if he had even more. Far more than in "Silence," though the second killer, Dolarhyde, a deeply disturbed film laboratory worker and William Blake fan who has Blake's Red Dragon tattooed on his back, takes over the movie.
Sometimes that's good. There are scenes where Fiennes is quite scary, and he cuts an eerie figure prancing around nude displaying his Dragon tattoo, or slugging a librarian so he can steal and eat Blake's Dragon picture. But Fiennes doesn't do what Hopkins manages; he doesn't give his scenes a comic edge. Instead, Fiennes plays him with such sober, dour intensity that he wears a little, even in his perverse love scenes with the glowingly sensual Watson.
Norton, on the other hand, is a good foil. His boyish enthusiasm lets Hannibal seem more what he was in "Silence" -- a mentor of amorality. Even better is Hoffman as the wily Freddy, a scandal reporter for the trashy "National Tattler." It's another of the smug-creep roles on which he seems to hold the franchise.
All three of the Hannibal films -- and "Manhunter," too -- are visually memorable, and "Dragon" has the benefit of a fine cast and an excellent scare score by Danny Elfman.
The movie is so well made on every level, in fact, that it's a little frustrating.
While nice to see an elegant, well-made shocker, it would be good also to see as much skill, genius and money lavished on great scripts that connect even more deeply with the dark side. That may be asking too much, though. "Red Dragon" is very much a product, and a superior one, of our times. So is Anthony Hopkins' top-notch fiend, the bad doctor.
3 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Brett Ratner; written by Ted Tally, based on the novel by Thomas Harris; photographed by Dante Spinotti; edited by Mark Helfrich; production designed by Kristi Zea; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 4. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: R (violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality).
Hannibal Lecter -- Anthony Hopkins
Will Graham -- Edward Norton
Francis Dolarhyde -- Ralph Fiennes
Jack Crawford -- Harvey Keitel
Reba McClane -- Emily Watson
Freddy Lounds -- Philip Seymour Hoffman
Molly Graham -- Mary-Louise Parker Dr. Chilton -- Anthony Heald
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times