[Screen It]

(2002) (Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins) (R)

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Horror/Suspense: A retired FBI agent returns to active duty and must enlist the aid of a former and now imprisoned collaborator in hopes of identifying and stopping a serial killer.
A serial killer is on the loose - having recently killed two families - and FBI agent Jack Crawford (HARVEY KEITEL) wants former agent Will Graham (EDWARD NORTON) to come out of retirement and apply his intrinsic expertise to the case. Graham is reluctant, however, and that's not just because he's now married to Molly (MARY-LOUISE PARKER) with whom he has a young son, Josh (TYLER PATRICK JONES).

It's also due to nearly being killed on his last case by forensic psychologist Hannibal Lecter (ANTHONY HOPKINS) who turned out to be a cannibalistic serial killer. Nevertheless, Jack thinks it would be a good idea to enlist Lecter's aid in cracking the current case and so Will heads off to the Baltimore mental asylum run by Dr. Chilton (ANTHONY HEALD) to meet his former collaborator.

Ever the wily psychopath, Lecter agrees, but generates just as many questions as answers and their meeting entices seedy reporter Freddy Lounds (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN) to figure out what's going on. Little do they know that the killer is Francis Dolarhyde (RALPH FIENNES), a video technician who has a serious mental problem in that he believes a William Blake painting is controlling his life.

When that's not occurring, he's seeing Reba McClane (EMILY WATSON), a blind darkroom worker who's oblivious to his behavior but senses that he's a kindred spirit to her in having to overcome a own physical debility and being "different."

With time running out before the next scheduled killing, Jack, Will and fellow agent Lloyd Bowman (KEN LEUNG) try to crack the case, all while dealing with Lecter's unique way of assisting them.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
They say that you can't keep a good man down. That also seems to be true for serial killers, or at least those portrayed by Oscar-winning actors in highly popular suspense films. Yes, our favorite mass murderer, Hannibal Lecter, is back for more erudite killing in this, his third outing, "Red Dragon."

To be accurate, it's actually the fourth time around we've seen the character, albeit only the third with Anthony Hopkins ("Bad Company," "Hearts in Atlantis") playing the part. That's because filmmaker Michael Mann, hot off his success with TV's "Miami Vice" - directed Brian Cox as Hannibal in 1986's "Manhunter."

Like that film, this one is based on novelist Thomas Harris' first work in the serial killer series and both are precursors to 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs." Of course, Mann and company had no idea that the award winning Jonathan Demme film would follow them, whereas director Brett Ratner - hot off his success with "The Family Man" and the "Rush Hour" films - obviously did. He and "Lambs" screenwriter Ted Tally ("All the Pretty Horses," "Before and After") have thus done the prequel bit while fully aware of how things connect to and will play out in the Jodie Foster film.

The result is a formulaic but mostly effective thriller that plays off and has fun with those connective elements, such as reprising a character who met his demise in "Lambs." Humor aside - and some of it is quite funny, in a morbid way - the film is rather similar to "Lambs" in plot structure. Both have a serial killer on the loose and a FBI agent who reluctantly enlists the aid of a brilliant but deranged and now imprisoned serial killer to crack the case and stop any additional deaths.

This time, however, the agent isn't some green female rookie, but rather a seasoned family man who already has a tumultuous past with the incarcerated killer. As was the case with "Lambs" - but less so in 2001's "Hannibal" - the fun is in watching the interaction between the agent and the killer. Ratner and Tally get the mood, dialogue and interplay just right, and Hopkins has the part so down pat that he could play it in his sleep.

One almost worries that he'll become too typecast in or associated with the role, but he's far too talented an actor to allow that to happen. As his counterpart, the incredibly talented Edward Norton ("Death to Smoochy," "The Score") doesn't strain too much in the part and finally gives Lecter a male antagonist. Norton isn't particularly memorable playing the agent, although he's certainly but not surprisingly solid in the role.

Unlike "Lambs" and its Buffalo Bob character, this effort delves a bit deeper into the serial killer on the loose. As played by Ralph Fiennes ("The End of the Affair," "The English Patient"), the madman is a bit more complex in structure than most such characters, although he doesn't stray too far from the genre's conventions. What is different, however, is in him having a "girlfriend" played by Emily Watson ("Punch Drunk Love," "Gosford Park").

One could say that she's blind to his extracurricular activities, but that would be too easy considering that the character is physically unable to see. That, of course, adds for some heightened suspense, although not to the point or effectiveness of "Wait Until Dark."

Meanwhile, Harvey Keitel ("The Grey Zone," "U-571") shows up as another FBI agent, Mary-Louise Parker ("The Portrait of a Lady," "Fried Green Tomatoes") plays Norton's wife, Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Almost Famous," "State and Main") embodies a seedy journalist and Anthony Heald ("Proof of Life," "8MM") reprises his role from "Lambs." The latter, of course, generates some of the film's "insider" morbid humor since his character met his demise in that film.

Considering that he'd yet to tackle the genre, Ratner does a decent job staging and then running the various suspense scenes, and the high pedigree cast certainly makes the film easy enough to watch.

Although the picture closely resembles "Lambs" in terms of its storyline, contains a few problems and delivers a bit too many genre conventions and clichés - particularly in the third act - for the most part it's a decently effective thriller. In addition, any opportunity to see Hopkins playing the part again - at least until he or the character wears out their welcome - is worth the price of admission alone. "Red Dragon" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 1, 2002 / Posted October 4, 2002

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