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Hannibal   D+

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 Jeremiah Kipp

"Well, hello Clarice."

Audiences have waited 10 years for Dr. Lecter to say these magic words. The anticipation has built up to a fever pitch where some audiences have decided in advance whether they will actually enjoy the film (just see my article on Dreading Hannibal at filmcritic.com to see what I mean). With that sort of media buildup, this unlikely beauty and the beast scenario could never hope to surpass the pop culture zeitgeist of Jonathan Demme's riveting thriller, The Silence of the Lambs.

Taken on its own merits, Hannibal remains fairly underwhelming. Take away the resonance of Silence and you're left with a routine game of cat-and-mouse, albeit one that exists in a maze so convoluted it can't decide which way to turn. There are too many subplots which head down dead end corners, complete with trite dramatic pay-offs that only prove that Hannibal Lecter rules uber alles.

* * *

For certain Hannibal isn't about FBI Agent Clarice Starling, having evolved from the chess player thoughtfulness of Jodie Foster to the tough as nails Julianne Moore. Even Foster would have floundered in this underwritten role. After a fairly routine fish market shootout, the type which could be spotted in almost any generic action flick, Starling spends most of her screen time slouched behind a computer keeping a fool's gallery of sexist co-workers at bay.

The real protagonist is Anthony Hopkins, refilling his title role with all the chortling glee he employed in Silence of the Lambs. Clearly enjoying the plush suits and romantic Florentine locale (having defected to Italy after munching on his nemesis, Dr. Chilton), Hopkins settles into his persona as a man of grace and delicate tastes. It's the portrait of the serial killer as artist savant. How easy is it to root for a savage cannibal who only seems to munch on those who really deserve it? "The free-range rude," laughs his former nurse, Barney (Frankie R. Faison, returning for a brief cameo).

Did we really want to root for Hannibal the Cannibal? Most audiences did, obviously, but I've always connected violence with failure of the imagination. The implied terror of what the man in the cage was capable of doing is what truly lingers in our memory. That first image of Dr. Lecter standing stock still in his Silence cell conjures up more vivid fears than any of the slice 'n' dice antics he employs here with his handy-dandy scalpel. It's what we don't see that shivers our timbers.

Ridley Scott has never been one for subtlety, splashing around in grand spectacles of foreign domes and arches like a gluttonous kid in a candy store. Certainly, Hannibal looks quite pretty in that gauzy gloss of Hollywood, but only during establishing shots. The action and chase scenes are confused by blurred slow motion effects, created (I suspect) so the cinematographer didn't actually have to choreograph the violence. The effect is sloppy, which is anathema when dealing with a clinical killer.

* * *

If Hannibal means to be a Grand Guignol romance between Dr. Lecter and Clarice, it fails on almost every level. The fundamental question while watching is, quite simply, "What's the point?"

If we are in anticipation of their final confrontation, suspense is waylaid by a long digression charting the progress of a shifty Italian cop (the many cigarette smoking Giancarlo Giannini) tracking the beast. This sad eyed fellow's motivation is a large cash reward, which could buy a whole season of opera tickets for his greedy wife. It's not easy to root for this sneaky pete, and he's probably got more screen time than Julianne Moore. Though it eats up (ha-ha) the most screen time, at least this little number comes to a fitting conclusion at the film's midpoint that neatly ties up all loose ends in Italy.

Much less engrossing are the stories revolving around professional government asshole Paul Krendler (smug Ray Liotta) and the cannibal's sole surviving victim, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled and unrecognizable beneath some grotesque elephant man makeup). Krendler exists solely to thwart Starling's progress throughout until he gets his just desserts -- ba-dum-bum. Don't laugh! Some reviews are comprised entirely of bad cooking puns. Verger, on the other hand, is plotting an international manhunt to capture the good doctor in order to fulfill his grandiose scheme of feeding Lecter, feet first, to a pack of wild boars.

The promise of brutal, envelope-pushing gore goes completely unfulfilled. Hannibal might have been more comfortable basking in excess had it been much more violent. The grisly finale, in which Verger and Krendler come full circle in their dance with the devil, has been known to cause some professional critics to avert their gaze or push the popcorn away. If the savagery weren't handled in such a goofy, self-satisfied manner, it may well have been revolting. Since Hannibal appears overly concerned with sustaining Dr. Lecter as an ultracool pop icon, it never crosses the line into making his behavior revolting. We're still rooting for him. This only serves to dull the mortifying thrill -- think of it as Gross-Outs for Dummies.

* * *

What about that central relationship between Lecter and Clarice? They exchange a few terse phone calls, but not having them face to face loses the sensual allure of being separated by a wall of glass. By the time Hannibal has returned stateside and is prancing around Clarice in the shadows, stealing little brushes of her hair, we're in Nora Ephron territory. Lacking momentum to propel their game, sparks fail to fly. As they reach their crescendo right before the closing credits, it's a moment so crassly staged it's less apt to induce gasps of shock than gales of pitiful laughter.

Hannibal remains watchable simply by throwing so many balls into the air at once, juggling numerous locales, characters and muddled themes. It winds up dropping every single one, like guts hanging from the belly of a hanging man. Bon friggin' appetit, but if you want some real cannibal action filmed with all the lush vigor of haute cuisine, you should get a real kick out of Peter Greenaway's vastly superior orgy of excess, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Now, them's good eatin'.

Review published 02.13.2001.

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