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Hannibal

Ridley ScottFBIGiancarlo GianniniCrime, Law and JusticeAnthony HopkinsMoviesDavid Mamet

Friday February 9, 2001

     A lot can happen in 10 years. An actor can misplace a character, a story can lose its connection to an audience, and a highly anticipated sequel can forget why anyone was interested in it in the first place. All of which happened to the unfortunate "Hannibal."
     Released almost a decade to the day after the frightfully successful "The Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal" has to be classified as a disappointment. Never mind that Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as the cannibalistic Dr. Lecter, that Julianne Moore is a choice replacement for a coy Jodie Foster, that director Ridley Scott is coming off the highly successful "Gladiator." There's still something missing.
     For--aside from its five Oscars, including best picture--the appeal of "Silence" was grounded in a feral sense of danger, an unnerving ability to make us very afraid. The handsome, well-appointed "Hannibal," on the other hand, takes a magisterial approach to the same material, never allowing itself to get down and dirty enough to be truly scary. Starting with its use of preeminent screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian to adapt Thomas Harris' book, this is one enterprise that proves, Rodney Dangerfield notwithstanding, that it is possible to treat something with too much respect.
     Even in those moments (like its flesh-eating finale) when "Hannibal" gets unpleasant enough to earn its R rating for "strong gruesome violence," the film is creepy and grotesque rather than terrifying. It's more distasteful than anything stronger, a sour bottle of a celebrated vintage that a gourmet like Lecter wouldn't hesitate to send back with the sommelier.
     Both Hopkins and Moore have talked in interviews about using the 10 years that have passed since the first film's events as a building block in creating their roles. While it's hard to argue with that as a theory, in practice it has weakened both characters as well as undermined the all-important relationship between them.
     Living as a sybaritic fugitive has, regrettably, mellowed Hannibal Lecter to the point that if you hadn't seen "Silence" you wouldn't know why everyone is so unreservedly scared of him. Though his performance is assured, there's too much of the matinee idol on a farewell tour in Hopkins' characterization and not enough of the intimidating monster glimpsed but for a moment in a 10-year-old surveillance tape of Lecter on the attack.
     As the relentless FBI agent forever on his trail, Moore probably wanted to set her performance apart from Foster's Oscar-winning original as well as to take that 10-year time lapse into account. Her Clarice Starling is colder, fiercer, more unwavering than Foster's, but while that indomitability is defensible as an acting choice, it has unfortunate side effects.
     The problem is that though "Hannibal" turns even more than its predecessor on the personal chemistry between these two, those changes (plus the new casting) mean there's not a whole lot of that to go around. With Lecter less terrifying and Starling less vulnerable around the edges, there is hardly any reason to worry that anything bad will happen to her, a diminished fear that she'll be overmatched by the most horrific things imaginable.
     That bond between Lecter and Starling is of special interest to the fabulously wealthy, hideously disfigured Mason Verger. Played by an uncredited Gary Oldman under elaborate waxy makeup that makes him look like a blood brother to Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera, Verger is the only one of Lecter's victims to have survived. His only mission in life is to take revenge on the man who caused his mutilation, and he dreams and schemes about using Starling as the bait to trap his adversary.
     Starling, not surprisingly, is having problems of her own. A bungled drug bust (not her fault, to be sure) has both gotten her in trouble and given her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for most people killed by a female FBI agent. That makes her vulnerable to the machinations of the influential Verger ("He can't buy a senator," someone says, "but he can rent one from time to time") and his Justice Department cat's-paw Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta).
     *
     Meanwhile, over in Italy, Lecter is living large as the cultivated Dr. Fell, a scholar who knows chunks of Dante by heart and curates a celebrated library in Florence. Local police inspector Pazzi (veteran Giancarlo Giannini) gets an inkling of who this man is, but the detective is so clearly overmatched by even a semiretired Hannibal that it's difficult to remain absorbed by this aspect of the story line.
     The main event, the Verger-Starling-Lecter version of the Bermuda Triangle, is more involving, but not involving enough. Though "Hannibal" has seriously meddled with parts of the book's ending, what's more problematic is its insistence on viewing Lecter, his numerous victims notwithstanding, with respect if not outright approval. We may empathize with the man more than we ever anticipated, but if he's not scaring us silly, what's the point of having him around?


Hannibal, 2001. R, for strong gruesome violence, some nudity and language. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Universal Pictures present, in association with Dino De Laurentiis, a Scott Free production, released by MGM. Director Ridley Scott. Producers Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis, Ridley Scott. Executive producer Branko Lustig. Screenplay David Mamet and Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Cinematographer John Mathieson. Editor Pietro Scalia. Costumes Janty Yates. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Norris Spencer. Art director David Crank. Set decorator Crispian Sallis. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling. Gary Oldman as Mason Verger. Ray Liotta as Paul Krendler. Frankie R. Faison as Barney. Giancarlo Giannini as Inspector Pazzi. Francesca Neri as Allegra Pazzi.

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