Dir: Brett Ratner. US. 2002. 124 mins.

The creepy appeal of 'Hannibal the Cannibal' Lecter is efficiently exploited once again in Red Dragon, an unadventurous yet slickly chilling successor to The Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal whose commercial success was probably assured the day Anthony Hopkins signed on to play everybody's favourite gourmet serial killer for a third time. Over its first weekend on US release the new film gobbled up $36.5m, suggesting an eventual domestic take close to the $131m earned by 1991 Oscar-winner Silence but significantly short of the $165m devoured by last year's much-anticipated sequel Hannibal. In the international marketplace, Red Dragon, which surrounds Hopkins with an impressive transatlantic supporting cast, can be expected to perform somewhat better than in the US, as both Silence (with an international total of $146m) and Hannibal (with $185m) did before it.

The film is based on the 1981 Thomas Harris novel that first introduced the Lecter character (and was also the basis for Michael Mann's 1986 film Manhunter). Not surprisingly, for this screen version veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis, director Brett Ratner and Silence Of The Lambs scriptwriter Ted Tally have subtly shifted the focus more towards Lecter than the story originally demanded.

Lecter, we learn, was first befriended and then, after a nearly fatal confrontation, captured by young FBI agent Will Graham (Norton). Now Graham, who has been lured out of early retirement by his Bureau boss (Keitel), has to turn to his incarcerated former adversary for help in capturing another killer, the weird and brutal Tooth Fairy (Fiennes).

The premise sounds familiar and it sets the stage for a series of face-offs between Will and Lecter that recall the tense meetings between Lecter and Clarice Starling in Silence Of The Lambs. Lecter is as entertainingly wicked as ever and while there is nothing new about the character on display here Hopkins, to his credit, manages to revisit the role and some of the familiar mannerisms without falling into the trap of self-parody. Norton brings a certain vulnerability to his role but he can't compensate for the fact that Will is a less intriguing character than Clarice was and that consequently his dealings with Lecter are much less highly charged.

Elsewhere in the cast, Fiennes is an interesting choice to play a not so interesting killer (it turns out a strict, overbearing mother made him the William Blake-obsessed psycho he is today) while Watson and Hoffman make the most of their limited parts as, respectively, the Tooth Fairy's would-be blind girlfriend and a seedy tabloid reporter.

Stylistically, Red Dragon falls somewhere between the two previous Lecter films. It steers well clear of the over the top, Grand Guignol camp which distinguished Ridley Scott's Hannibal. It clearly wants to have more in common with Jonathan Demme's Silence Of The Lambs, but it never achieves anything like the psychological intensity that made that film a breakout hit.

Instead, Ratner, who up to now has been best known for good-natured action comedies like Rush Hour and its sequel, delivers a well-crafted and handsome film (shot by Manhunter cinematographer Dante Spinotti and designed by Silence production designer Kristi Zea) that uses conventional devices to produce the requisite gruesome thrills.

Prod cos: Universal Pictures and Dino De Laurentiis in association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Dist: Universal (US), UIP (intl).
Prods: Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis.
Exec prod: Andrew Z Davis.
Scr: Ted Tally, based on the book by Thomas Harris.
Director of Photography: Dante Spinotti.
Prod des: Kristi Zea.
Ed: Mark Helmfrich.
Music: Danny Elfman.
Main cast: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman.