Anthony Hopkins returns as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in "Red Dragon," a prequel to 1991's Oscar-sweeping "Silence of the Lambs." It's out Tuesday on DVD ($26.98) and VHS (rental only). It made $93 million in North American theaters and $107 million overseas.
"Red Dragon" raises the question of whether artistic mediocrity can be morally preferable to artistic brilliance. That's hardly a new controversy -- Plato harrumphed about it in "The Republic" -- but it's back in the spotlight because this competent but forgettable police procedural seems a lot less likely than the more powerful "Silence" to plant ideas in the heads of real-life psychos.
Structurally, the plot of "Red Dragon" is identical to that of "Silence of the Lambs." A serial killer is running amok and the FBI is stumped. So, to pick up tips on the criminal mind, a young agent must descend into the dungeon where America's most dangerous prisoner, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is serving nine consecutive life sentences. There, they commence a battle of wits and wills.
That Hannibal -- a character previously burnished by such visionary directors as Michael Mann (1986's "Manhunter"), Ridley Scott (2001's "Hannibal"), and, most of all, Jonathan Demme ("Silence") -- has been sacrilegiously entrusted to the commercially oriented Brett Ratner (director of Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour" comedies) has left numerous critics irate.
Look, guys, it's a cannibal serial killer thriller, for crissakes.
Beyond Ratner's lack of genius, Edward Norton (so good in "American History X") gives a bland performance in what is essentially Jody Foster's Oscar-winning role as the FBI agent. The chemistry between the effete cannibal and the subtly mannish Foster generated a lot of perverse sexual tension. The blondish Norton, who looks like a cross between a Ralph Lauren Polo model and a large chipmunk, plays too much of an Eagle Scout to appear in any danger of being seduced to the dark side.
And the 1,001 television parodies of Hannibal the Cannibal since 1991 means that even though Hopkins gives his considerable all, he can't keep this ridiculous role from drifting into the campiness it deserves.
In the big picture, what's bad about "Red Dragon" is good for society. I know of no evidence that "Silence of the Lambs" launched any member of the lunatic fringe on a murderous career, but that would hardly be implausible. Great actors and directors have the ability to set sickos off. Foster's performance in Martin Scorsese's tremendous "Taxi Driver" inspired a vile creep to shoot the president of the United States. Similarly, Salon.com reported that 15 murders have been committed by vermin who afterwards bragged that they were inspired by Oliver Stone's technically stunning but depraved 1994 film "Natural Born Killers."
Hopkins' performance shows how actors trained in the British stage tradition can go on playing ultra-theatrical concoctions like Hannibal the Cannibal into their dotage. The British see the craft of acting as mastering time-tested techniques for presenting a brilliant façade. Hopkins understudied for Laurence Olivier, who claimed he never understood a character until he found the right hat to wear.
In contrast, American Method actors view the art of acting as fully taking on a new character's body and emotions, although not his brains. The British style is best for impossibly articulate roles such as Hamlet or Hannibal Lecter. The Method school shines at portraying mumblers and morons. Think of Robert De Niro adding 60 pounds and banging his head against the wall at the end of "Raging Bull."
At 59, De Niro no longer looks up to the huge physical demands of his chosen approach. In contrast, Hopkins is 64. In last summer's action dud "Bad Company," Hopkins was so dead on his feet that he got out-acted by comedian Chris Rock, who might be the worst actor of any movie star. Hopkins, though, can still dazzle as Hannibal Lecter because he has his old bag of tricks, such as never blinking, and can keep adding new ones.
Hopkins is not completely the master of technique. He drags his Welsh accent everywhere (including, ludicrously, his title performance in Stone's "Nixon"). Americans, though, can't tell a Welsh accent from an upper-crust English one, so they find Hannibal the epitome of class.
Which is pretty funny because Hopkins is an outspoken vulgarian. Although once penciled in as the next Olivier, he abandoned Britain for the simple pleasures of big dumb Hollywood movies and roaring around the wide-open spaces of the United States in an American muscle car. "I have no interest in Shakespeare and all that British nonsense ... I just wanted to get famous, and all the rest is hogwash," he said.
Hopkins became an American citizen in 2000.
Rated R for violence, grisly images, language, some nudity, and sexuality. Please don't take your kids.