Ten years and a week after Hannibal Lecter was last seen sauntering off for a meal, he’s back, his enthusiastic eating habits quite intact. The public will likewise exhibit a ravenous appetite for the continuing saga of one of contemporary literature and cinema’s most fascinating villains, as played once again with exquisite taste and riveting force by Anthony Hopkins. Although “Hannibal” lacks several elements that made its predecessor, the Oscar-winning “The Silence of the Lambs,” so powerful — the surprise transformation of serial killer pulp fiction into a legitimate quality film, ever-escalating narrative tension and breathless encounters between the imprisoned Lecter and young FBI agent Clarice Starling, then but no longer played by Jodie Foster — “Hannibal” still delivers most of the desired goods. Opening will be huge, and biz should sustain for some weeks given the absence of any other high profile releases until March. Domestic distrib MGM’s long dry spell looks to end, and results internationally, where Universal is handling distribution, should be even bigger.
“Hannibal” is not as good as “Lambs”; as with Thomas Harris’ initially mesmerizing 1999 bestseller, the film reaches its peak in the Italian-set second act, becoming more routine in plotting and execution after that. Furthermore, Ridley Scott’s opulent, impressionistic direction, while striking on its own terms, doesn’t lend itself to the sort of sustained creepiness and complex character interplay delivered by Jonathan Demme’s carefully tooled craftsmanship.
Ultimately more shallow and crass at its heart than its predecessor, “Hannibal” is nevertheless tantalizing, engrossing and occasionally startling. Contrary to expectations given the possibilities offered by the book, the film is not terribly bloody and is gruesome only where it means to be. Just as Scott refrained from graphic displays of spurting blood and severed limbs in “Gladiator,” so here does he exhibit discretion by downplaying the overt gore, even if it’s always clear what’s going on.
As penned by David Mamet, then by Steven Zaillian, script is, for better or worse, quite faithful to the Harris blueprint; fans of the tome may regret the perhaps necessary excision of some characters, most notably that of Mason Verger’s muscle-bound macho sister Margot, as well as of the considerable fascinating academic detail, but will basically feel the book has been respected (yes, even the climactic dinner party is served up intact, with the only surprise twists saved for its wake).
A decade into her career, Clarice Starling, this time portrayed by Julianne Moore, achieves a dubious distinction, becoming the female FBI agent with the most recorded kills: In the cop show-like opening set-piece, a major Washington, D.C., drug bust gets the wrong kind of publicity when Starling, in self-defense, shoots and kills a dealer whose baby is strategically strapped to her body. Having made the bureau look bad, she’s suddenly put under suspicion and on the sidelines by her superiors, notably Justice Dept. hotshot Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), who harbors a long-standing grudge against the attractive agent who became famous for the spectacular success she scored on her first case.
Though the man has not been heard from in years, the specter of Hannibal Lecter has never vanished, least of all for one Mason Verger, an endlessly wealthy wastrel whose arguable misfortune it is to be the lone survivor of a Lecter attack; confined to a wheelchair on his vast estate, his face has the consistency and attractiveness of steak tartare, and his prime interest in life is to kidnap Hannibal Lecter and subject him to the most hideous torture his vengeful mind can conjure. His plan: To unleash starving giant pigs on his tormentor and keep him alive while the beasts devour his feet and eventually the rest of him.
To this end, Verger interviews hospital orderly Barney (Frankie R. Faison, along with Hopkins the only “Lambs” actor to return here) and Starling, the lone individuals to have survived sustained exposure to Lecter years back. He also posts a $3 million reward, which attracts the attention in Florence, Italy, of Detective Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), who rightly suspects that a local newcomer, Dr. Fell, who is poised to take over a distinguished scholarly position after the mysterious disappearance of the previous office holder, is, in fact, Hannibal Lecter.
Faced with the ethical choice of pursuing Lecter officially as a cop or illicitly as a bounty hunter, Pazzi chooses the latter course. The detective plays a quiet game of cat-and-mouse with Lecter, observing him on his rounds of the exquisite Renaissance city and figuring out a devious, if tragic, way to obtain the suspect’s fingerprints for verification.
Of course, Lecter is never one to play the mouse. Making his grand entrance a half-hour into the film, Hopkins’ Lecter is seen living grandly in the 15th century splendor of the Palazzo Capponi, enjoying the finest things in life after his eight-year incarceration, lecturing brilliantly to local academics — and newly energized with his discovery of Starling’s disgrace and the thought that he may now be back on law enforcement’s radar.
With the aide of some professional thugs, Pazzi plots to spring a trap on Lecter. But the master criminal brilliantly turns the tables on his pursuer in a way that literally shows the touch of an artist, as Pazzi joins some of his infamous ancestors in the grotesquely public and immortalized manner of his demise.
At this point, it is clear that Hannibal Lecter hasn’t lost a step, and neither has Hopkins in continuing the seductively diabolical portrayal that won him an Oscar 10 years ago. Mastering and savoring everything in his universe, Lecter impresses and terrifies by virtue of his staggering intelligence and complete command of every situation; even when Lecter is physically constrained, one still cannot get the better of him. While “Lambs” soared partly because of the pent-up power of the monster in a cage, “Hannibal” imparts its own pleasures by painting a portrait of a man of ultimate civilized refinements whose dark side always threatens to lurch violently out.
When Lecter and the action return irrevocably Stateside 80 minutes in, the plotting takes on a more mechanical feel, just as the visuals, so lavishly appointed in Florence, become more mundane. Never having forgotten Clarice Starling, Lecter circles her, talking and writing to her just as she is unjustly accused of warning the cannibal of impending police action against him. But suddenly, Verger’s goons succeed in snaring Lecter and are preparing to give him a taste of his own medicine when Starling must make her own moral and ethical choices about intervening in the fate of the demon who has understood her better than any other man.
The infamous dinner scene, which ironically recalls the feast Hopkins recently cooked up in “Titus” and involves Lecter serving an unsuspecting victim morsels from his own body, was weird enough in the book and is even weirder to witness played out onscreen. Some will cringe and not be able to look, others will find it ludicrous, while others still — many teenage boys, no doubt — will consider it very cool and the main reason to see the movie. Scott’s sense of moderation abandons him here, with a result that’s rather over the top and perversely humiliating to the actor involved. The writers have come up with a capper that feels more appropriate than the book’s coda probably would have been onscreen.
As Starling, Moore acquits herself solidly in circumstances that don’t allow the sort of psychological revelations and heavy confrontations that Foster made the most of in “Lambs.” Although she gets considerable screen time, Starling is not quite as central here as she was in the previous picture, and the character spends a good deal of time being reprimanded and frustrated by her superiors. All the same, it would seem that Foster made a big mistake in turning down the reprise, as she could certainly now use the sort of hit “Hannibal” promises to be.
Supporting perfs are what they need to be, if one-dimensional. Big “secret,” given that his name appears nowhere in the front credits or in the final cast list, is that the faceless Mason Verger is played by Gary Oldman. Thesp’s involvement is only suggested by a mysterious “assistant to Gary Oldman” credit deep in the end crawl, and performance is one of those odd stunts that comes off; the character is so strangely deranged that to root for him against Lecter, no matter how heinous the latter may be, is utterly impossible.
Visually, Ridley Scott is clearly now in his Blue Period, as he and “Gladiator” lenser John Mathieson bathe the action in seas of blue light whenever possible. Spectacular locations, not only in Florence but at the ornate Biltmore Estate in North Carolina (as Verger’s palatial domicile) and James Madison’s former estate in Montpelier, Va., are abetted by Norris Spencer’s high-end production design and Janty Yates’ apt costumes. Pietro Scalia’s editing is expert, while Hans Zimmer’s effective score is dominated, in the end, by an original opera duet written by Patrick Cassidy.