Retired FBI Investigator Will Graham is lured back into action after a series of grisly murders undertaken by serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, aka The Tooth Fairy. To help crack the case, Graham enlists the help of Dr Hannibal Lecter
Let's be honest, it didn't look very promising, did it? The auteur behind The Family Man and Rush Hour 2 tackling the movie's favourite cannibal with the residue of the dreary Hannibal still ripe in the memory. But Brett Ratner's adaptation of Thomas Harris' 1981 prequel to The Silence Of The Lambs (already adapted by Michael Mann as Manhunter) delivers the goods with minimum fuss.
As if to atone for Ridley Scott's uninspired instalment, Red Dragon feels like a concerted effort to get back to the glory days of Silence and, to a large extent and against all the odds, Ratner pulls it off. It may not have Manhunter's sense of style or interesting contours, but Red Dragon surpasses Mann's movie in its dogmatic desire to entertain.
Putting the cult of Lecter aside for a moment, Red Dragon works as a cracking detective story. Going the Christopher Columbus/Harry Potter route, Ratner, in tandem with Silence screenwriter Tally, has been remarkably faithful to Harris' tautly constructed mystery. He offers a well-tooled, workmanlike compendium of the book's greatest hits - the great scene in which Lecter's cell is searched for clues as to how he is contacting Dolarhyde, the horrific burning wheelchair set-piece - that is the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner.
Where Ratner does deviate from the novel, it pays dividends: a pre-credits opener that pitches Lecter and Graham against each other, first mentally, then physically, is a fantastic curtain-raiser, satisfying our immediate appetite to see the good Doctor while setting up the Lecter-Graham mind-games to come.
Hopkins, who doesn't make much effort to convince us that the character is any younger, coasts through his scaremongering, conveying an astuteness and intelligence that was missing last time round. Although Lecter's comedy schtick is much better judged here - droll wit replacing grandstanding one-liners - and keeping Lecter in his cell is far more unnerving than him roaming freely, it is a shame that much of the menace from the monster in Silence has evaporated. At times bordering on the pantomimic, Lecter has turned into a Freddy Kruger for the Friends generation.
Elsewhere, Ratner has invested in quality casting and it shows. As Lecter's foil, Norton gives the movie a likeable, easy-to-root-for centre, nicely conveying a man masking his fear with a determination to do right. Be it scoffing a painting of William Blake's Red Dragon or torturing a snivelling journalist (nobody plays snivelling and enfeebled like Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Fiennes manages to take Dolarhyde to the extremes without ever making the character's evil laughable.
If not quite as shit-scary as Tom Noonan's incarnation from Manhunter, he also finds a real shift of gear in his tentative, affecting relationship with Reba (Watson, once again putting in good work), the blind woman who offers the killer a redemptive state of grace.
What ultimately stops Red Dragon from being truly great rather than merely good is the bog-standard quality in Ratner's direction. Everything is crisp, everything is proficient but nowhere does he generate the foreboding atmosphere or memorable image that really hits home: visually, the movie is a sitcom version of Silence, all flat lighting and bland set-ups, the infamous corridor approaching Lecter's cell having none of its previous power.
Indeed, the movie doesn't really deliver any real scares and nail-gnawing tension until a last reel denouement. But when the shocks do come, they work a treat.
Not as good as The Silence Of The Lambs, but definitely besting the risible Hannibal, Red Dragon is a thoroughly entertaining, efficiently mounted thriller. If this is the last of the cannibal capers - and the sense of familiarity suggests that it should