Bloody Good Fun

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is the premier Hollywood monster of our time -- even scarier, in his way, than John Travolta. Fish-eyed and slightly phosphorescent, wearing an expression of icy beatitude, he hovers monklike behind his sheet of perforated plastic (which recalls the captivity of laboratory locusts), bodily contained but limitless as to his mind. Nothing -- no act or idea -- is beyond him, and his dastardliness is without degree: Criminology stops short of Hannibal the Cannibal, analysis stammers its excuses and psychiatry just bounces off (under sodium pentothal he merely recites exotic recipes). "Gruesome, isn't he?" laments Hannibal of his prison shrink. "He fumbles at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle." Can we take another movie -- a fourth -- about this man? Oh, indeed we can. Oh, absolutely.

If a film about a serial killer can ever be called a romp, Red Dragon is it. Director Brett Ratner -- young, spunky and stinking of the fat cash he made with the terrible Rush Hour and Rush Hour II -- goes crashing into this material with almost barbaric zeal. The film -- working from Thomas Harris' 1981 novel and Michael Mann's 1986 movie Manhunter -- is what they call a prequel, meaning it takes places before The Silence of the Lambs, and as the action begins, Hannibal is at large, reveling in his freedom and doing what he does best: serving people to people. "Dr. Lecter," gushes a dinner guest within 30 seconds of the opening credits, "you must tell us what is in these delightful amuse-bouches." And away we go!

Anthony Hopkins, of course, is Hannibal. They gave him an Oscar for it after The Silence of the Lambs, and he now plays the character with a certain tipsy relish, like a satanically transfigured Truman Capote. The narrative formula is the same as the one employed in Silence: A bafflingly deranged serial killer is at work, and in order to understand him, the FBI must consult the most evil man it knows, the man whose cell is a foyer to hell, the anthropophagous Dr. L.

The prison visitor this time is male -- FBI Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), who has the distinction of being the man who put Hannibal away. Understandably enough, this is a big thing between them. Hannibal is convinced that only a creature of exquisite sensitivity could ever have apprehended him, and he makes much of Graham's divinatory qualities, saying, "Fear is the price of our instrument, but I can help you bear it!" Graham, who served his time in the loony bin after cracking the Hannibal case, insists that his success was just dumb luck. But still: "You've got that other thing," his FBI superior, Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), tells him, and when Graham probes a darkened crime scene, gazing into the cosmology of an elaborately smashed mirror and leaping to conclusions, he does seem to be a little on the intuitive side. This is meat and drink to Hannibal the mind eater: "Dream much, Will?" he asks, leering into the back of Graham's skull. Graham is not as pretty as Clarice Starling of Hannibal films past, but the slithering eroticism with which the good doctor treats him is undiminished. "You're wearing that cheap aftershave again, Will," Hannibal remarks. And so together they discuss the latest slayer of families, the Tooth Fairy (he leaves bite marks), or, as he prefers to be known, the Red Dragon.

There's no telling what the unsupervised ingestion of William Blake's works will do. The young Allen Ginsberg, for example, alone in his Harlem apartment in 1948, read Blake's lyric "Ah! Sun-flower" after masturbating and suddenly heard the "grave earthen voice" of the poet speaking to him audibly across the intervening centuries. (Shortly thereafter, Ginsberg checked into the Columbia Psychiatric Institute for an eight-month stay.)

Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), on the other hand, a harelipped ex-bed wetter now bench-pressing hundreds of pounds, is in visionary thrall to Blake's painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, a print of which he keeps in his attic. With its appalling flame-licked musculature and boulder-like buttocks (the lexicon of bodybuilding -- along with ripped, sliced, cut and cross-striated -- will one day include the term Blakeian, or maybe just Blaked), its wings of ribbed skin and its ram's horns vortically curled, the Dragon represents all the violent masculine splendor that was denied Dolarhyde by his nasty old granny, who always threatened to "cut it off."

Dragon-commanded, Dolarhyde commits his crimes, lives secretively and ritualistically, and, in the way of these things, accrues a certain magnetism or mystique. At any rate, Reba McLane (Emily Watson), a blind girl of indomitable spirit, is drawn to him. Reba is not as Dickensian as she sounds; her sightless eyes are sexually avid, bright with appetite. "I love animals!" she chirps pointedly, more than once.

It's an interesting little affair she has with Dolarhyde: On their first date, he takes her to watch a tiger having its tooth pulled. The great beast lies drugged on the examination table, drooling and grumbling with its paws sleepily crossed. Reba approaches and begins to stroke its belly, warily at first but then gaining in courage, gaining in power, trailing her hand down its slumbering thigh, dipping into the furred voltage of its groin and yes, giving it a good, nonsurgical feel. Tyger tyger! What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful -- well, let's move on.

Did Ratner have control of his actors? It appears not, but they do know what they're doing. Fiennes is in a different film altogether, a work of tortured theatrical solemnity through which he stalks naked with his Blaked body and his impressive dorsal tattoo, spurning all goofiness. The voice he affects for the part is quite something: fey, wet mouthed, slightly constipated, a weird spray of sound. Calling to Reba from his van window, Dolarhyde says, "Ride with me! For my pleasure!" -- and Fiennes utters the line as if it were the groaning hinge of tragedy. Remote, grandiose -- just right for a serial killer, as it happens. Norton, on the other hand, seems to be teaching a sort of master class in understatement, in anti-flash, shrugging and mumbling along, letting his chin hang and his eyes dwindle. Again, just right for the character of Will Graham, a modest man unsettled by his intuitive gift. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also here, mouth breathing his way through another great, sordid cameo, this time as a hack for the Tattler, a scandalous and gore-obsessed tabloid.

Red Dragon lacks the creepy-crawliness of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. There was autumnal ooze in Silence, and a parched fluttering of insect wings. It was evil on a molecular level, emanating in low colors from Hannibal's cell. Occasionally, Ratner seems to be shooting for something similar. Graham puts an urgent call through to his boss, for instance, and we cut to Crawford in a baroque -- almost Hannibalesque -- moment, improbably poised between plump cushions and drinking tea out of some rather elegant china. The scene has a velvety, slightly hellish texture. For the most part, however, Ratner steers clear of the fancy stuff, sensibly relying on his actors and the cracking script.

The prison visits are the highlights, no question: "Ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It looks quite black." Hannibal's custodians treat him, as before, with a caution approaching reverence: Cameras and snipers are trained on him, straps, leashes and that god-awful mad-dog mask are religiously tightened about his person. His potency is unremitting. Was he ever a bed wetter? Who knows or cares? Hannibal is pristine. Considerably more fun than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, he's back.