In the fast-paced prelude of Red Dragon (which is itself a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and the less successful Hannibal), there's a tantalizing glimpse into what Dr. Hannibal Lecter's life was like before he was condemned to a maximum-security cell, with his man-eating jaws trussed tightly together behind a leather mask. As filmgoers might suspect, Hannibal--as only Anthony Hopkins could play him--was always an irredeemable snob. Of course, he was also a murdering madman who carefully butchered his victims in order to extract their tenderest bits and turn them into delectable victuals for himself and his snooty friends.

After one such dinner party, an FBI agent named Will Graham (Edward Norton) happens to stumble upon Dr. Lecter's secret--and the good doctor knows it. While Graham's back is turned, his liver gets skewered by the uncharacteristically panicked doctor--who himself winds up impaled by the handful of quivers Graham happened to be clutching at the time. Both survive, naturally: Lecter to go on to life in prison and Graham to seek semi-retirement. The near-deadly encounter definitely left the FBI man more shaken than his brilliant but totally balmy opponent.

So, for all of his admitted investigative prowess--specifically, his uncanny ability to think like a serial murderer--Graham is reluctant to get back in the game when he's summoned by his FBI boss, Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), to help track down the psycho who has slaughtered two entire families, one in Atlanta, the other in Birmingham. Graham relents, however, after seeing photos of the dead kids, and once on the crime scene, he senses what he's up against. Knowing he can only go so far in penetrating the twisted mind of this new killer, Graham decides to consult his old nemesis, the terminally twisted Lecter.

There are two tracks of terror to follow in Thomas Harris's book Red Dragon (the first of his Hannibal series, previously filmed in 1986 by Michael Mann and retitled Manhunter) and in Ted Tally's spare and powerful screenplay. The first--the duel of wits and clever repartee between Graham and Lecter--does not turn out to be the most interesting one. Much more satisfying is the increasingly terrifying personal challenge presented to Graham by the new killer--who calls himself Red Dragon, although to the FBI he's known, rather ingloriously, as 'the tooth fairy,' because of the teeth marks he leaves in his victims. And Ralph Fiennes truly gets his teeth into this villainous role.

Fiennes' intense 'presence' works equally well when his evil persona is in full sail (as he goes through a stunning physical and mental transformation) or when he softens, becoming almost human, while responding to the emotionally needy Reba, a blind young woman exquisitely played by Emily Watson. Another fine actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, has a relatively small but indelible role as Freddy, a tabloid journalist who's kidnapped by the Red Dragon and made to grovel and beg for pity before meeting his spectacular and particularly gruesome end. Which prompts Hannibal, who knows and sees all, to ask Graham, 'Did you enjoy your first murder?'

The bitter, clever ripostes between Lecter and Graham are beautifully delivered and, yes, the Hannibal/Hopkins clique will undoubtedly find pleasure in them. But let's not forget that other movie in Red Dragon--the fresh and tautly done thriller that is well-directed by Brett Ratner and especially well-acted by Norton, Fiennes, Watson, Hoffman and Mary Louise Parker (as Graham's wife). Goodness, Ma, is this the end of Lecter?

--Shirley Sealy