“Hannibal,” the much anticipated sequel to Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning “Silence of the lambs,” is a feast for the eyes, not the stomach. What was once taut and terrifying has become mundane. Everything that made the first film so riveting has been tossed out the window. What remains is an exercise in gratuitous violence geared to titillate rather than horrify.

hannibalIt’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since novice FBI agent Clarice Starling first met infamous serial killer Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Their first encounter, inside a high security prison hidden deep within the bowels of FBI headquarters, was a memorable battle of wills.

Even though they were separated by a thick plate of plexiglass, what made their encounters chilling was Lecter’s ability to still affect Starling. The way he spoke, his deceiving cadence, made me squirm. Lecter made it clear that he didn’t have to physically touch his victims to harm them. He gets inside their minds, forcing them to face the dark side that exists in all of us.

All of that is missing in “Hannibal.” After escaping at the end of “Silence of the Lambs,” Lecter is now a free man. The carnage he creates is much more physical. Instead of mentally incapacitating his victims, he takes the task to hand. That reduces “Hannibal” to the level of common serial killer thrillers. It’s no longer smart. It’s exploitation wrapped up in expensive paper.

Indeed, “Hannibal” is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Director Ridley Scott is a master of atmosphere, and “Hannibal” has style to spare. Director of Photography John Mathieson bathes every frame with striking shadows and soft hues. “Hannibal” is a handsome, almost pretty film, a contrast to the ugliness it depicts.

Anthony Hopkins returns as Lecter, a role that won him an Academy Award. Hopkins is fine as Lecter, but not nearly as scary. What has become a signature role for the actor has been reduced to a boogeyman. He creeps around in shadows, stalking his victims with all of the malice and forethought of a garden variety serial killer. What’s missing are the intense mind games that made Lecter so powerful.

Scott and writers David Mamet and Steven Zaillian have elevated Lecter to a whole new level, one of mythic stature. He doesn’t just walk the streets of Florence, Italy, he glides down them like Darth Vader, his cape sweeping behind him like a cloud of doom. It’s all very ominous, but not very Lecter. It doesn’t make much sense, but little in “Hannibal” does.

I can understand why Jodie Foster, who also won an Oscar for her portrayal of Starling, would pass on all of this. Starling is relegated to a second banana, someone waiting by the phone hoping that Lecter will call and make her day. Julianne Moore replaces Foster as Starling, and does an admirable job when she’s allowed to.

When we first meet Starling in “Hannibal,” she’s working a dangerous undercover assignment involving drug traffickers. Now a seasoned FBI agent, Starling knows when a situation is heading south, and wants to call off the raid. Her orders are ignored by the local Feds, and the situation goes from bad to worse. Starling is blamed for the fiasco, and finds herself on the outs with the agency.

All of this is set up in a series of painful cliches that demand we not only toss logic out the window, but ignore it all together. To make matters worse, Moore is asked to mimic Foster’s accent so that viewers immediately know that she is the same character. It’s an insult to both actresses, especially since Moore conveniently loses the accent after the connection has been established.

Is it too much to reason that Starling could have lost her accent after ten years on the force? This gimmick betrays Moore’s ability to make the character her own instead of revisiting Foster’s interpretation. It reminded me of the time when George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery as James Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Lazenby’s first close-up was shot so that he resembled Connery. The rest of the film he looked like, well, George Lazenby.

Instead of being Starling’s go-to guy whenever she’s in trouble, Lecter becomes her obsession. He’s the one that got away. They still share a twisted symbiosis, a mutual respect for each other’s work. Lecter is also obsessed with Starling, the one person who proved his equal. She’s unfinished business, a fact that becomes clear as “Hannibal” progresses.

The sequel is about revenge, pure and simple. Lecter finds himself defending his freedom from all sides. Giancarlo Giannini plays a local police detective who hopes to snag glory and a reward for finding the good doctor, but we all know that his greed will be the end of him. Then there’s Mason Verger, the only one of Lecter’s victims to survive. Hideously deformed, Verger uses his vast fortune to draw Lecter out into the open.

That means using Starling as bait, a fact not lost on the FBI agent or her superiors, who all seem to be nincompoops. Their actions set up the inevitable payoff, which features a terrific visual effects gag and not much more. You shake your head in disbelief every time one of Starling’s superiors opens their mouth. Their motives are so extreme and silly you want them to wind up as one of Lecter’s meals.

It’s hard to blame the actors, who do their best to rise above the material, but you really want to bitch slap director Scott for destroying the film. He’s more interested in making a horror film rather than a psychological thriller. He uses symbolism like it’s going out of style, and it doesn’t take long before it becomes weary. A character who is about to spill his guts is disemboweled and then hung by Lecter, allowing the character to literally spill his guts. Please!

Scott revels in the film’s violence, extracting much more gore than is necessary. He paints every violent act in crimson, trying to obscure the fact that hardly any of this is thrilling.

The only truly chilling moment comes when Starling picks up the phone, expecting to hear the voice of the Italian police detective on the other end, and instead getting Lecter. When Lecter greets her with his ominous “Hello, Clarice,” it sent shivers down my spine. Why? Because this scene was the only one that captured Lecter’s ability to affect Starling from a distance. Whether behind a thick plate of glass or thousands of miles away, he was inside her head.

The rest of “Hannibal” is just an excuse to make money off a much better film.


Hannibal a feast for eyes, not for stomach


Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Giancarlo Giannini, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Gary Oldman in a film directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R. 131 Minutes.


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