The doctor is in: Hannibal returns in 'Lambs' prequel

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Friday's opening of "Red Dragon" has some moviegoers quivering with anticipation, others shivering with aversion at the prospect of still more shenanigans by Hannibal Lecter, the screen's most charismatic cannibal.

If his homicidal capers aren't to your taste, so to speak, you should probably steer clear of his new adventure. But if you enjoyed the previous installments of his saga, you may find this one rather tame, heavier on ominous moods than the explicit gore associated with the series.

"Red Dragon" takes place immediately before the action of "The Silence of the Lambs," the Oscar-sweeping hit that introduced Anthony Hopkins as the psychotic psychiatrist.

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It begins with a violent confrontation between Lecter and FBI agent Will Graham, who's been drawing on the doctor's expertise in his hunt for a crazed killer. Lecter lands in jail and Graham retires to Florida, but they're reunited when Graham agrees to help his FBI colleagues track down a new killer.

The rest of the movie alternates between Graham's police work and his prison meetings with Lecter, who grudgingly agrees to assist with the case.

We also meet the killer they're after, an outwardly mild man whose demented deeds are inspired by a William Blake painting. One subplot shows his romance with a blind woman who's unaware of his derangement. Another centers on an ill-fated tabloid reporter.

The triumph of "The Silence of the Lambs" in the 1991 Oscar race marked a turning point in American movies, indicating a new tolerance for high levels of perverse violence. Last year's "Hannibal" was even more extravagant, using high-tech effects to produce some of the grisliest visions ever unveiled in a mainstream picture.

The most refreshing aspect of "Red Dragon" is its reliance on old-fashioned acting instead of computer-aided gizmos. Hopkins overdoes his role at times – his vocal tones are almost campy – but his piercing eyes are as menacing as ever, and Ralph Fiennes is scarily good as his fellow lunatic.

Add nicely understated portrayals by Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel as the cops, and an amusingly broad one by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the reporter, and you have enough finely tuned acting to compensate for the movie's failings, which include a poorly written climax that brings it to a disappointing close.

Lecter fans should be satisfied with the movie, but I wouldn't be surprised if this marked the end of his widescreen adventures.

• Rated R; contains violence.

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