Oh you silly Cannibal you, put down that meat

He’s back. Sure, we stare wide-eyed, but are we still afraid?

With The Silence of the Lambs, the director Jonathan Demme noticeably forced himself to wring every last bit out of his vision. The performances were pure and their surroundings were tortured into terror territory.

Ridley Scott’s silly Hannibal was an abundance of luxuriant atmospherics and glossy characterizations. Instead of frightening, it was frightful, substituting scare with gore and creep with camp.

Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, the third release in the “Hannibal” series, falls somewhere in between. The ominous mood is deep, but also visibly molded. The actors emote in fits and starts, giving the film a kind of uneven flash. The flickers of intensity are often bright, yet never seem to catch fire.

Three years after retiring from the FBI, because of a near-fatal encounter with Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), Will Graham (Edward Norton) is asked by his ex-partner Jack Crawford (Harvey Kietel) to solve one last case. He’s to catch a serial killer, known by authorities as Francis “The Tooth Fairy” Dolarhyde.

To get inside the mind of “The Tooth Fairy,” Graham reluctantly enlists Lecter as a psychological guide. Little does he know that “The Tooth Fairy” is getting inside information from none other than Dr. Lecter.

At very least, Red Dragon brings fear back to the fore, due in large part to writer Ted Tally’s adaptation. His second-best screenplay (the best being Silence) is witty, just smart enough to convince an audience of the varied degrees of intellect these characters possess.

David Mamet and Stephen Zaillian collaborated on Hannibal’s script. Both are better writers than Tally, but their individual talents never jelled, providing Hannibal with Mamet’s clipped dialogue and Zaillian’s stylized earnestness. Lecter appeared almost jovial—we started rooting for him, once we discovered how truly unthreatening he was when not held captive in a maximum-security fortress.

Thankfully, Lecter is once again tethered down like an animal, and like an animal, ready to use his carnal instincts to escape and pounce on his prey. His clever grace and loquacious elegance suggest a snake charmer’s transfixing wiles.

Perhaps the greatest asset to this episode of the Hannibal Lecter series is the depth of the performances. Silence was similarly affecting, allowing Hopkins’s mid-Atlantic purr of a voice to spar with Jodie Foster’s multi-layered staccato drawl. Their Oscar-winning interpretations lent complexity to the pulpy material.

Red Dragon benefits from the estimable talents of Edward Norton, Phillip Seymore Hoffman, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, and Mary Louise Parker, not to mention a quietly ravenous hiss of a performance by Anthony Hopkins.

I only wish they all realized they were acting in the same movie, rather than giving expert, but disjointed line readings before Dante Spinotti’s close-up lens.

The director, Brett Ratner, is an unusual choice for the material, with the Rush Hour series and The Family Man to highlight his resume. He does, however, do a fine job with the film. Though this is his most successful effort thus far, the film does not have much personality to speak of. Rather, it has an imitative quality.

Perhaps that was the plan. When confronted with what can go so wrong with serial thrillers under the guidance of another already established, the producers may have opted to appoint a workman to copy the poet. It’s like hiring a competent contractor to do pricey design work at cost. It looks the same, so who cares if it’s a knockoff?

After all, Hannibal Lecter is more or less returned to form, though he was not the center of attention in Thomas Harris’s book of the same title, as he is in the film Red Dragon.

Grotesquerie is the plat du jour, at times hammy, at others tasteless. Somebody’s tongue is ripped out of their mouth after a kiss with a most menacing overbite, and at another point a body a flaming wheelchair sails down a city street. Lecter is famous for do not shock so much as repulse.

If this is one’s idea of fun, by all means, go. The arterial droplets leading Graham to each crime scene may as well be a trail of breadcrumbs for audiences hungry for another helping of giddy gruesomeness and canny cannibalism. Bon appetit.

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