October 04, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

The cast and crew of ”Red Dragon,” opening Oct. 4, can’t be oblivious to the big questions hovering over them. Like, why do another Hannibal Lecter movie? Especially one based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name, which Michael Mann already brought, quite slickly, to the big screen as 1986’s ”Manhunter.” Can director Brett Ratner, the guy best known for directing the ”Rush Hour” bang-’em-ups, pull this off? Will the top-drawer cast — which includes, of course, Anthony Hopkins in his third go as man-hungry shrink Hannibal Lecter, Edward Norton as Special Agent Will Graham, along with Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, and Philip Seymour Hoffman — make this another ”Silence of the Lambs,” or raise hopes impossibly high?

”Red Dragon” follows films both sublime and ridiculed. ”The Silence of the Lambs,” based on Harris’ second Lecter novel, swept the 1992 Oscars, winning Best Picture, Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Jodie Foster), Director (Jonathan Demme), and Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). But the gang scattered for ”Hannibal,” which was based on Harris’ bloody, critically bashed best-seller. Foster begged off returning as FBI agent Clarice Starling; Demme and Tally also declined. Word had it the trio were averse to the book’s gore and its crowning Starling-Lecter amour. Hopkins, however, stuck (scoring a $10 million payday), and with Julianne Moore as Starling and Ridley Scott as director, ”Hannibal” the movie went on to gross $349 million worldwide, besting ”The Silence of the Lambs” by $76 million.

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