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'Red Dragon'

New villains and heroes ride 'Red Dragon'

Friday, October 04, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

You are what you eat, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one helluva hungry guy. He's Anthony Hopkins, of course, but forget him: Ralph Fiennes is famished, by comparison, in "Red Dragon" -- the prequel to the sequel to "Silence of the Lambs."

'Red Dragon'

RATING: R for violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality

STARRING: Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman

DIRECTOR: Brett Ratner

WEB SITE: www.reddragonmovie.com


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Years before Jodie Foster got involved with him, Hannibal the Cannibal was nailed and jailed by ace forensic psychiatrist Edward Norton. It took its psychiatric toll on Ed. He quit the business. But now, in the wake of a new rash of copycat-cannibal killings, FBI boss Harvey Keitel recruits Norton out of his retirement.

Forensic psychiatrist? I don't know. I'd be more comfortable with Cyril Wecht, or some other less sensitive pathologist. But Norton and Hannibal have a relationship, so Ed gets the nod. Re-investigating the crime scenes, he discovers broken pieces of mirror in the victims' eyes and a pattern of bite marks: This "Tooth Fairy" murderer has a telltale cleft-palate deformity.

He also has an unhealthy interest in home videos, an excessive number of tattoos, and a creepy romance with a blind girl (Emily Watson). He's got more issues than Norman Bates -- and a grandmother that makes Norman's mother look as wholesome as Betty Crocker.

Other issues include William Blake and a National Tattler reporter (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who gets consumed by his story in more ways than one. But here's another issue -- a 20-year-old one:

Back in 1982, Stephen King called Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" the best American popular novel since "The Godfather." Harris also authored "Black Sunday," the Super Bowl terrorist tale beloved of Pittsburghers because it starred the Steelers -- threatened by a psychopathic killer, driven from his Vietnam experience. "Red Dragon's" psychopathic killer is driven by social rejection due to his cleft lip and palate birth defects. Twenty years ago, Joseph Moschetta of the Cleft Palate Parents' Association here wrote a heartfelt letter to Harris:

"I did not appreciate your alluding to the cleft condition as being the prime cause of the assailant's behavior. From reading the novel, I relived many sad experiences. I think more education with relation to birth defects is needed so that the populace does not view at the outset a handicapped person as a potential monster."

Moschetta described and informed Harris of the painful frequency of clefts (one in every 400 births), concluding with a request for a response -- and, to his surprise, got one:

"[The killer's] psychopathology was the result of his being treated with ignorance and hostility as a child," Harris replied. "Nowhere in 'Red Dragon' do I indicate that his physical defect was the cause of his behavior."

That was a bit disingenuous. Flashbacks in both the book and film stress the ugliness of a deformity known by the awful term "harelip" -- equivalent of the "N" word to African-Americans.

Cleft victims and their families care about this. Hollywood and Harris do not.

That issue, in any case, does not detract from the quality of the film or its performances: Edward Norton is one of the most charming, honest actors of our time -- I love everything he does, this role included. Ditto for Harvey Keitel -- a legend of our (slightly previous) time. Hopkins' reprise of Hannibal is fine, if unexciting. Fiennes as the killer is strangely ambiguous, neither terrifying nor sympathetic in the attempt to be both. He thinks that, by eating someone, you take over that person's spirit -- fillet of soul, so to speak.

It's hard to swallow let alone digest -- turgid and plotty compared to "Lambs," and director Brett Ratner is no match for Jonathan Demme -- but slick, nasty fun nevertheless.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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