Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta
It's neither as good as you hoped it would be, nor is it as bad as you feared it might be. Hannibal, whatever it is or isn't, is a film that is both cursed and blessed from the onset. The popularity of Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs, not to mention the almost legendary status of Anthony Hopkins' performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, ensured intense public interest in any follow-up. Equally intense reservations abounded about the possibility of the sequel living up to the original, especially when neither director Jonathan Demme nor star Jodie Foster opted to be involved. Hannibal was under a cloud from the start, since Thomas Harris's source novel had already been deemed inferior (and often worse than that) to Silence of the Lambs. However, judging by audience turnout so far, interest has won out over reservation, even if the reviews have been mixed and the anticipated "Well, it's no Silence of the Lambs" has already attained mantra-like status. And, no, it very much isn't Silence of the Lambs, though that's not entirely a bad thing, since Hannibal largely manages to become a film in its own right. (The film does wisely refer back in clever ways to Silence, as when Lecter, who originally remarked on Clarice's "cheap shoes," gifts her with a pair of Gucci sandals.) Hannibal is more sweeping and more visually sumptuous than its predecessor. In some ways, it's more stylish -- which isn't surprising, since Ridley Scott is more a conscious stylist than Demme. And in some ways, it's a much creepier film. There's an air of something genuinely unwholesome about the proceedings -- no matter how balanced by the darkly comic tone of the David Mamet-Stephen Zaillian screenplay -- that affords Hannibal an identity as something other than Silence of the Lambs II. Nothing in the original came anywhere near the twisted level of the character of revenge-crazed Mason Verger (played by an unidentifiable, untouted and originally unbilled Gary Oldman in a truly horrific make-up), a wealthy pedophile whose face had earlier been removed by Lecter and fed to dogs. Unfortunately, the film's creepiness does not translate into much in the way of thrills. In departing too much from the specifics of the first film, Hannibal loses something, owing to a central flaw in the construction of the story. Silence of the Lambs worked in large part owing to its effectiveness as a carefully crafted thriller involving characters in peril about whom audiences could genuinely care and whose fates were not a given. The first film essentially offered two stories -- albeit interconnected ones -- involving the relationship between Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling, and the search for the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. As a result, there was a villain and a menace other than Hannibal. The immediate problem with Hannibal in this regard is that it offers the viewers villains who are either merely stupidly venal or are out for revenge on Lecter, and only two characters to care about. Since the latter are Clarice and Hannibal, there's precious little in the way of suspense. We know from the onset that Hannibal isn't about to dine on Clarice (the script even tells us that "Dr. Lecter said, whenever possible he preferred to eat the rude") and we know that Hannibal himself isn't in any real peril, so the film instead becomes a frequently brilliant, stylish and witty series of cat-and-mouse set-pieces. And on this level, it succeeds admirably. Nearly all of the set-pieces are clever, while the ones set in Florence involving Lecter and a corrupt police official (Giancarlo Giannini) are positively brilliant. There is no shortage of wit or style here, though it must be noted that Hannibal -- for all his clever repartee and brilliant insights -- comes perilously close to the realm of the Nightmare on Elm Street Freddy Kruger one-liners, threatening to turn the character into another "stand-up maniac." The film's biggest shortcoming is the showdown between Lecter and Verger, whose plans to even the score with the doctor by slowly feeding him to man-eating pigs lack originality from the start -- a situation not helped in the least by the almost perfunctory nature of the encounter itself. Similarly, the film's already notorious "brain-eating" sequence probably read more effectively than it plays, in some part due to the fact that the exposed-brain CGI effects look, well, ... like CGI effects. Beyond this, Hopkins' very proper attire and best headwaiter demeanor in the sequence manages to convey the undesired effect that we're watching his character from Remains of the Day gone horribly awry. All this to one side, though, what we're left with is a gorgeously photographed and well directed horror film character study that is graced by powerhouse performances from Hopkins, Julianne Moore (Jodie who?) and Gary Oldman. The horror elements, while certainly stronger than those one expects in a mainstream feature, are, upon examination, more suggested -- even hinted at -- than graphically depicted. Yet they're never done in such a way that the film seems too reticent or determined to be too classy for its own horrific good. Hannibal will never attain the respect, nor the quasi-mythic status, of Silence of the Lambs -- but it is still a slick, entertaining horror film that will wear well.