Anthony Hopkins, Red Dragon
Credit: Red Dragon: Glen Wilson

No one took the idea seriously at first. It would be a fourth Hannibal Lecter movie, but based on the first book in the Thomas Harris series — which introduced Lecter only in a small supporting role. It all sounded a tad tired, particularly since the novel had hit screens already, as 1986’s ”Manhunter,” directed by no less an auteur than Michael Mann. And there was the timing: Producer Dino De Laurentiis, who owns the rights to the Lecter character, was pitching the film right on the heels of ”Hannibal”’s success.

”I think all of us initially rolled our eyes at the idea,” says Edward Norton, who plays Will Graham (a part originally tackled by ”CSI” star William Petersen back in ’86), the FBI profiler who slammed the asylum doors on Lecter — and now needs his help to find a serial killer. ”In a weird way, the franchise aspect of it was something that had to be gotten over.”

A script by Ted Tally, Oscar winner for 1991’s ”The Silence of the Lambs,” helped to overcome worries that ”Red Dragon” was a mere quick-buck proposition and proved there were themes left to explore. The screenplay pulls story lines from the novel that ”Manhunter” eschewed, scenes that illuminate the madness of murderer Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes). The script also portrays the capture of Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and hews close to ”Red Dragon”’s original ending. ”It’s a credit to Ted’s adaptation that it got [director] Brett [Ratner] excited,” Norton says. ”And it’s a credit to Brett’s determination to pull together as many quality people around him as he could. He badgered a lot of people he really wanted into reading [the script].”

For his efforts, Ratner scored a cast that includes four Oscar nominees — Norton, Fiennes, Emily Watson (as the killer’s blind girlfriend), and Harvey Keitel (as top agent Jack Crawford); Tony winner Mary-Louise Parker (as Graham’s victimized wife); and, of course, Oscar winner Hopkins, who was honored for ”Silence.”

The director himself has a bit more to prove. Ratner says he owes his reported $4 million gig to the Nicolas Cage drama ”Family Man” rather than that pair of Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker blockbusters. ”I don’t think I would ever have been offered this movie off of ‘Rush Hour,”’ he admits. Ratner also claims he has a built-in advantage: Of the three Harris novels, he dubs ”Red Dragon” the best. ”By far. You understand why Dolarhyde is doing this, because you get a back story,” he says. ”In ‘Silence,’ you just knew the guy skinned women — you didn’t know what his hang-ups were, what his history was.”

And, speaking of history, Hopkins believes the audience is primed for a third helping of his cultured cannibal. ”We’re fascinated by Dracula and the great legends of literature,” he says. ”There are these subterranean parts of ourselves, dark shadows. That’s why we’re scared of the bogeyman.”

THE LOWDOWN With this cast and crew, we’re almost ready to suspend our skepticism about trying to improve on a recipe as tasty as Michael Mann’s ”Manhunter.”

Red Dragon
  • Movie
  • 126 minutes