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Hannibal   C

MGM Pictures / Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: David Mamet, Steven Zaillian (based on the novel by Thomas Harris)
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri.

Review by Rob Vaux

And here it sits, the sequel 10 years in the making. What are we to make of this curiosity which has been dropped into our laps? It stands almost perfectly poised between two artistic extremes. Do we compare it to Silence of the Lambs, one of the best films of the last 20 years? Or to Thomas Harris's novel Hannibal, the worst bestseller since the days of Jacqueline Susann? Do we shake our heads at the absence of Jodie Foster? Or marvel at her gutsy replacement, Julianne Moore? Do we pine for the stark verité of Jonathan Demme? Or drink in the lush greenery of Ridley Scott? The cultural baggage is piling up as we speak. What do we say to this film, this Hannibal, which arrives under the ominous banner "Break the Silence"? How do we even begin to judge a work so loaded?

In and of itself, it's not a bad film -- not nearly as bad as the book, and not half so bad as it might have been in less capable hands. At the very least, it retains Anthony Hopkins' ghoulish charm as the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Ten years after his gruesome escape from custody, Lecter is living under an assumed identity in Florence, Italy, but one look at the man and we know the evil he keeps hidden. The elegant wit, the predator's cunning, the soulless dead eyes that stare right through you... Hopkins knows this role like the back of his eyelids and clearly has a ball recreating the monster which made him famous.

His new sparring partner is up to the task as well. Picking up the slack when Jodie Foster passed on the role, Julianne Moore brings a seasoned intensity to FBI agent Clarice Starling, the fragile trainee whose hidden strengths so captivated Lecter in the previous film. A decade later, that trainee has been replaced by a cool, hard-nosed professional, a woman who has no trouble facing down drug dealers and snide superiors alike. Moore does an excellent job of maintaining Clarice's sense of moral purpose, while displaying the new toughness that 10 years as a federal agent has wrought. It's the same character, yet it's uniquely her own; she's not simply following in Foster's shadow.

Unfortunately, even with two such capable anchors, Hannibal struggles far too often to capitalize on its strengths. While Silence (and the lesser-known Manhunter) focused on taut crime-solving methodology, Hannibal seems content to serve as a melodramatic potboiler... and suffers the consequences. Gone is the attention to detecting techniques, the desire to understand a killer's mindset, the terrifying thrill of the chase. Gone is the fearsome chess game between hunter and prey. Instead, we have something more old-fashioned, almost quaint, with broadly defined heroes and villains and a key sense of reality missing from the proceedings. The film opens with Starling overseeing a botched drug raid which -- though not her fault -- lands her in hot water with her superiors. Sleazy Justice agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) relegates her to the Bureau's basement, assigned to pore over possible clues to Dr. Lecter's location. Krendler, as it turns out, works for Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), the hideously disfigured survivor of one of Lecter's attacks. Sporting a mass of facial scars and a hissing lisp that would give Peter Lorre nightmares, Verger has bent his considerable resources towards avenging himself upon Lecter, and wants to use Starling as bait. Meanwhile, in Florence, a rumpled police inspector (Giancarlo Giannini), begins to suspect that the local Dante expert may be more than he seems. He launches a plan to capture the good doctor, and sets into motion of series of event which ultimately brings Lecter and Starling back into contact.

All of this unfolds with soap-opera regularity, as each character resolutely his own crystal-clear agenda. Parts of the plot suffer credibility lapses, and it becomes very easy to poke holes in the story. Still, as melodrama, Hannibal proceeds adequately enough. The screenplay brims with the sort of clever dialogue which Lecter would approve, and Scott's direction has some nice flourishes. There are some truly exquisite moments peppered here and there, such as Starling's inadvertent phone call to Lecter, or the doctor's escape from a Florence library. It also gently touches on more subtle notions from time to time: the feminist overtones of the previous film can be seen here, as well as a quiet meditation on moral susceptibility (Lecter's evil stands in contrast to the FBI's pliant corruption).

Unfortunately, none of it ever becomes truly compelling. The Italian subplot lacks punch and the film's lurid ending (though a big step up from Harris's version) remains curiously unsatisfying. Though it tries hard, Hannibal lacks the emotional power of Silence: the former film had the strength to truly terrify us, but the latter rarely becomes more than mildly engaging. Instead, it replaces the thrills with some truly gruesome violence, suggesting that the filmmakers are grasping at straws to get a reaction out of the audience. Hannibal revels in the hideous details of Lecter's excesses. It scoops them up by the fistful and lovingly displays them for our amusement, almost like a child looking for approval. In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with such shock tactics, but as the film wears on, they start to feel like they're covering up the flaws.

At the end of the day, however, it may be the changes wrought in the two lead characters which finally undoes Hannibal. As good as they are, and as much fun as we have watching them, Hannibal and Clarice have lost some vital spark. Starling's toughness makes her much less vulnerable than the first film, making it hard to truly fear for her safety (at the same time, she seems much more victimized here than in Silence, a curious inconsistency to say the least). Hopkins shines as Lecter, but his freedom and anonymity have robbed him of the menace he exuded in Silence. Most of the previous film had him locked up, caged, and waiting for a moment to strike. Here, he has no such limitations to get around, which robs him of that nerve-wracking sense of dread. A friend of mine compared Lecter to Hitchcock's bomb: he's much scarier before he goes off, and by the time Hannibal starts, his explosiveness has already been spent. Coupled with the changes in his female foil, it prevents Hannibal from grabbing us the way we presumably want to be grabbed.

The film has plenty of good elements, to be true, but at the end of the day, it simply can't escape the long shadow of its predecessor. A handsome production gives it a constant watchability, but it's hard to imagine shuddering to this one the way we did 10 years ago. The movie lives on borrowed time, and for all the gorgeous scenery, the devilish wit, and the fine performances, the true power of its story has already come and gone. Hannibal, unfortunately, is left cleaning up the remains.

Review published 02.12.2001.

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