He's baaaaaaaack! Wait. This is a prequel. He's heeeeeere! Hannibal Lecter, that is: the Julia Child of serial killers made famous in the Thomas Harris novels and particularly by the Oscar-winning performance of Anthony Hopkins in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins' Lecter is now a household synonym for creepiness, and his associations with fava beans and Chianti are now rather permanently affixed to those delicacies. Viewers will come to the theater with two major questions on their minds: Is Red Dragon better than last year's Grand Guignol horror-fest Hannibal? Yes, it is. How about The Silence of the Lambs? Not quite. Silence (one of few scary movies to nab the Best Picture Oscar) was a masterpiece of slowly unraveling tension and discreetly horrific brutality. Hannibal, better than most people give it credit for, was still an unworthy sequel, overexposing its star, who, in Silence, achieved icon status with only a handful of scenes most of them behind thick Plexiglas. Red Dragon, thankfully, comes closer to the spirit of Silence, the first film. Er, second film. You see, first there was 1986's Manhunter, based on the same story as Red Dragon, but with Brian Cox as the good doctor. Why the remake? Hopkins, of course.
We begin in the 1980s, at a Baltimore symphony concert. A flautist is mangling a delicate section of music, and we see Lecter wincing. We cut, then, to a magnificent dinner thrown by Lecter for the symphony board. In between compliments to the cook, they exchange snooty gossip about a missing musician. Good riddance, they suggest between bites (!), since he was so terrible. After the meal, Lecter is paid a visit by Will Graham (Edward Norton), an FBI agent with an uncommon ability to think like the very killers he hunts. The latest round of slayings is proving impossible to solve, and he has enlisted Lecter's help in putting the clues together. Graham's latest discovery: The killer is eating the victims! Who could it be? Within moments of Graham's revelation, he has a knife in him quickly on his way to being the next course. But fast thinking frees him from Lecter's clutches, and both men are critically wounded.
Years later, Graham is fixing boats in Florida. No more FBI for him. He has a wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and child and not a care in the world until former boss Jack Crawford stops by to tempt him back into one last case. There's a killer out there who has targeted two families, brutally slaughtering them then placing fragments of mirrors in their eyes. What could this mean? Only Graham can crack this one, but he's going to need some help: Lecter.
The formula here is mercifully closer to the Silence success: young, nervous FBI agent must stop one serial killer and relies on another to put the mystifying clues together. In Red Dragon, we get to take another long walk down the dungeon corridor to Lecter's cell, get to chuckle at the flamboyantly uppity warden Dr. Chilton (the returning Anthony Heald), and go through the same cat-and-mouse games that Lecter will eventually orchestrate with one Clarice Starling in Silence. Like Starling, Graham looks at the clues but doesn't see them. We do, however. Unlike Silence, we know much about the killer up front. He is sad loner Francis Dolarhyde sole resident of an abandoned nursing home and played by Ralph Fiennes. Between killings, he finds himself inadvertently courting a blind co-worker (Emily Watson), whose romantic advances play some havoc with his need to kill. This buys Graham some extra time in putting the pieces together, but the clock starts ticking faster when Graham's own family becomes involved. You know the drill.
Fans of the franchise will like this third installment. While Silence relied chiefly on psychological suspense and Hannibal on beautifully composed gore, Red Dragon opts for a little more action. Suspenseful, yes, but revealing the particulars of Dolarhyde's identity (including a Norman Bates-y grandmother obsession) lets a little air out of the tires. Fine performances from an almost campy Hopkins, Norton, and the terrifyingly over-the-top Fiennes, however, make this otherwise paint-by-numbers mystery worthy of the remake.