By now, Anthony Hopkins can play Hannibal Lecter without blinking. Literally. Just the taunt of the actor’s opaque-marble eyeballs — maddeningly unfocused, glazed with an impermeable mix of insanity and brilliance, lids pulled halfway up like window shades that flutter but never close — is enough to telegraph everything we already know, fear, and love about the movies’ most erudite psychopath. The tighter a camera zooms in on Hopkins’ full-moon head, the more chilling the effect of the distilled menace he projects. The man doesn’t move, and we dance to his pulse.
But then, after the definitive terrors of Jonathan Demme’s ”The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991, and the noisy Grand Guignol gore of Ridley Scott’s ”Hannibal” last year, the minutiae of mannerisms that make up Hopkins’ Lecter are familiar enough to be ladled into punchlines involving fava beans. The madman psychiatrist’s orthodontia-of-the-damned restraining face masks are well-known enough to sell at Halloween. When we think of Hannibal, we think of Hopkins.
That’s a triumph and a curse for Red Dragon, a thriller made from a completist’s checklist rather than with a cultist’s passion. It’s based on the first of Thomas Harris’ three Lecter novels, when the character was new as a deranged genius locked up in prison solitary, hungry for haute cuisine, preferably with a side dish of human meat. But it’s Hopkins’ third time in the role. By now he propels the character with his ocular muscles, like a bored athlete looking to amuse himself. And, perhaps spooked by the famous franchise in his hands, director Brett Ratner (a long way from ”Rush Hour”) can’t seem to find a fresh recipe to make his own.
The 1981 novel is set in a time before Lecter met Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee who would so memorably eat at his heart in ”Lambs” (the roles would win both Hopkins and Jodie Foster Oscars for their pains as Lecter and Starling): Before there was Clarice, there was Will Graham (Edward Norton), an FBI investigator no less perceptive than her and no less traumatized by association with Hannibal the Cannibal. Before there was Jame ”Buffalo Bill” Gumb, there was Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), known as the Tooth Fairy, who killed sleeping families with ritualistic exactitude.
Everyone familiar with ”The Silence of the Lambs” will see, of course, that once again a monster slayer needs the help of one monster in order to catch another, that once again a serial killer is motivated by a sick notion of self-improvement, and that the triangular dynamic of the intimate relationships endows the story with a great geometric strength. But ”once again” is a problem: While director Ratner and screenwriter Ted Tally (who won an Oscar for his ”Silence” script) need to convince us that this is an unfamiliarly younger, angrier, less seasoned jailhouse inmate — a Lecter who hasn’t yet decided how best to run his universe from behind bars — every synapse of the collective audience memory bank is receiving Hopkins’ performance based on what we already want and expect from Our Hannibal.
Every nerve ending is wired to watch ”Red Dragon” as a sequel, rather than as a precursor. Edward Norton, appropriately earnest and focused as his Graham is (and Norton does a nice job of layering resolve over fear), is inevitably assessed as another pale successor to the phenomenal Foster. Fiennes’ baroquely bizarre Dolarhyde — another in the increasingly haggard actor’s collection of increasingly strange character choices — is meticulously assembled out of colorful tics and outbursts, but the sight of his bare, tattooed butt only brings to mind the more mysterious (and thus creepier) activities of the skin-scavenging Buffalo Bill. (Emily Watson chooses familiar girlfriend-of-the-damaged territory for herself as the tremulously trusting, blind woman Dolarhyde tentatively courts.)
Following the wanton frenzies of ”Hannibal,” ”Red Dragon” wisely returns to the wiles of impending and suggested violence rather than the spectacle of bloody geysers. But producer Dino De Laurentiis knows what he wants, or maybe what he thinks we want. We want Anthony Hopkins’ soft, intimate voice, burred with mockery. We want the precise gestures, the slicked-back hair, the slow, fluid movements interrupted by bite-the-nose-off impulses from our old friend and his dinner guests. We get them — at the expense of a Lecter movie that really scares or excites.
For that, try ”Manhunter,” Michael Mann’s own sleek, unimprovable 1986 adaptation of ”Red Dragon” in which Brian Cox plays a less ornately rabid Hannibal, William Petersen presages his ”CSI” celebrity as Graham, and Tom Noonan scares the crap out of us as the Tooth Fairy. There is some small elegance in Dante Spinotti’s participation as ”Red Dragon”’s director of photography, since ”Manhunter” was the veteran Italian cinematographer’s first American production. To Mann’s ’80s thriller about men and vice, Spinotti brought striking vistas of psychic emptiness mixed with sexy flash. Appropriately for Ratner’s 2002 nostalgia trip, he photographs serial killing to look like comfort food.