Hannibal eats up big screen again

By Cynthia Grenier

Editor’s note: Because of the subject of this review, some readers may find it objectionable.

That cannibal from Baltimore is back again, this time in “Red Dragon,” which opened nationwide yesterday. It would seem the movie-going world simply cannot get enough of that master of evil, Hannibal Lecter – at least as incarnated by Anthony Hopkins, who is quite delicious even in his third round in the role. Indeed, Entertainment Weekly in a recent poll declared Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter the most popular villain in movie history.

The several hundred members of the Washington audience at the film’s preview Wednesday night went utterly bonkers from beginning to end. I don’t know when I’ve exited a movie theater surrounded by so many people positively bursting with such high enthusiasm about a movie they had just seen.

Mind you, this is the second big-screen telling of Dr. Lecter’s adventures from Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” and the third time Sir Anthony has slipped into the persona of the infinitely charming and deadly psychopath. Director Michael Mann shot the same story in 1986 under the title of “Manhunter” with Brian Cox as the evil doctor. In 1991 came “Silence of the Lambs,” winning Hopkins an Academy Award as well as one for writer Ted Tally for a screenplay that utterly seized movie audiences. Eleven years later famed director Ridley Scott brought Hopkins and Lecter back together again to the screen in “Hannibal.” That success convinced legendary Italian film producer Dino De Laurentis there was still cinema gold to be mined from another outing of the good doctor. Universal Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer agreed.

Enough of the backstory. “Red Dragon,” despite its fanciful and obviously implausible storyline, enjoys the presence of three magnificently first-rate actors and one actress playing at full measure of their skills – and throw in such worthy actors as Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mary-Louise Parker in secondary roles. The film sets out at a high pitch. Before the opening titles, we rapidly meet Dr. Lecter in fine fettle giving a dinner party in his elegant town house. When a woman guest queries as to the contents of the main dish, Hopkins, with a slyly discreet smile, allows that he thinks his guests best enjoy a meal without going into its composition. The audience let out a roar of delight. Here was their old friend Hannibal back in full flower.

As Dr. Lecter is doing the dishes, a young FBI agent, Will Graham (Edward Norton) who’s been seeking the doctor’s help with a criminal investigation arrives. After a few minutes of discussing a case wherein the criminal in question appears to be keeping the victims’ body parts, Lecter excuses himself. (The audience chortles in anticipation.) Graham browses around in Lector’s library, rifles through the French Larousse cookbook that falls open to a page on which the word “sweetbreads” has been written in as the translation of “ris de veau.”

Illumination instantly is followed by Lecter’s return with a knife which he plunges into Graham’s stomach. “Relax. I don’t want to hurt you. Give in. Think you’re sinking into a warm bath.” Before Graham passes out, he manages to thrust a heavy object into Lecter’s body sending him to the floor.

Titles start appearing over newspaper headlines telling the tale of the two men at death’s door, Lecter’s trial and Graham’s retirement to Florida. Now the movie proper begins, as Graham’s old FBI boss (Harvey Keitel) turns up to ask Graham to come back to help him solve a nefarious pair of murders of two whole families, children and their parents. Of course, Graham reluctantly acquiesces.

Finally, about halfway through the film – at least that’s what it felt like to me – we get to meet the mad psychopathic killer surnamed by the press “The Tooth Fairy,” played by a splendidly buffed Ralph Fiennes. (If a body double wasn’t being used for some of his naked scenes, producers might well start to consider starring him as an action hero.) He brings real passion, violence and subtlety to his psychopath, reminding us he played a notable Hamlet on the stage, and making the character far more interesting than the script suggests.

A blind young woman, played by the utterly admirable Emily Watson, finds her way to the tiny bit of humanity that still lies buried within. The two play out a very bold if tactfully shot love scene together. Indeed, perhaps only two such gifted actors could bring such a scene off without it falling into the coarsest vulgarity.

Fiennes goes on to perform several more horrible deeds, and Sir Anthony gets to purringly proffer quizzical advice before the final credits which sent the audience out into the night cheering and – dare I say it – hungry for more.