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Unwelcome tooth fairy

'Dragon' debuts another serial killer

When Hollywood makes a movie based on a popular novel, people are going to nitpick. The same thing happens when a perfectly good movie is remade just to squeeze a little more cash out of the idea. Fans of the book and/or movie in question are bound to make inevitable comparisons, and the new film almost always comes up short.

Director Brett Ratner ('Rush Hour') carries the burden of both sorts of criticism on his shoulders with 'Red Dragon,' based on the novel by Thomas Harris. The first book in a trilogy that included 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Hannibal,' it was arguably the best of the three. It already has been made into a dandy film called 'Manhunter,' directed by Michael Mann back in 1986.

Fans of the book and the earlier film have had understandably low expectations for this new Dino De Laurentiis-produced version of the novel. So let the nit-picking commence.

As it turns out, 'Red Dragon' is a much, much better film than it could have been, given its director and producer. That's partly due to the exceptional cast, headed by Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Watson. But most of the credit should go to screenwriter Ted Tally, who also adapted 'The Silence of the Lambs.' The script is tight, suspenseful and full of wicked little twists, and it's remarkably faithful to the book.

Norton does his usual solid acting as FBI agent Will Graham, despite lacking the cynical world-weariness that the character calls for. Retired after capturing (and almost being killed by) Hannibal Lecter, Graham is asked by his ex-boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) to help with another serial killer case.

Despite the objections of his wife (Mary-Louise Parker), Will starts looking at the case of the 'Tooth Fairy,' a killer who has slaughtered two families, placing bits of mirrors in their eyes as a trademark. And, of course, Graham ends up consulting his old nemesis, Lecter.

Hopkins, as in 'Hannibal,' lacks the dignified subtlety that he brought to the character in 'Silence,' but is less of a caricature than in that last, horrible film. Still, one imagines that when future audiences watch these three movies in the order of the stories, they're certainly going to wonder why Lecter looked 20 years older before he met Clarice Starling.

Fiennes is terrific as the Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde, a William Blake-obsessed, iron-pumping shy guy with a Norman Bates complex. And Watson shines as the not-so-innocent blind girl who sees the goodness in Francis, putting herself in jeopardy in the process.

But the gem of the film is the small performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the sleazy tabloid journalist stalking Graham and the Tooth Fairy story. Greasy and rumpled, Hoffman does what he does best Ñ make an utterly unsympathetic character, well, sympathetic. He is the most watchable thing in the film.

'Red Dragon' may not be as tight or as compelling as 'Manhunter.' And, frankly, Norton and Hopkins aren't nearly as good for their roles as were William Petersen and the original Lecter, Brian Cox. Still, it manages to fall closer in quality to 'Silence' than to the abysmal 'Hannibal.'

And that's something worth toasting with a nice glass of Chianti.