Welcome to 2001, where the threshold for what is grotesque and shocking seems to get anteed up just about every month.
Ripley Scott, riding high on the success of “Gladiator,” turns out the belated sequel to 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs” that is every bit as beautifully shot as its predecessor, but unfortunately compensates in gore for what it lacks in suspense. Containing some scenes that churn one’s stomach more than a helicopter bungee jump, “Hannibal” is more memorable as an exercise in “as nasty as they wanna be” filmmaking than as the enduring psychological thriller it aims to be.
With a first-rate cast, seasoned screenwriters and a celebrated director, it is surprising that “Hannibal” falls short. Julianne Moore takes Jodie Foster’s place as FBI agent Clarice Starling, the woman who Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) developed an infatuation for while incarcerated in “Silence of the Lambs.” Starling comes into the news after a drug raid in D.C. goes bad, garnering the attention of the ghoulishly disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), Lecter’s only surviving victim, who aims to use Starling as bait to exact revenge on the mad doctor.
The momentum toward finding Lecter builds up to his dramatic appearance thirty minutes into the film. Now a Renaissance scholar in Florence (the scenes shot here are peerlessly beautiful), he seems happily ensconced in the academic’s life until his true identity is discovered by local policeman Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Determined to win Verger’s handsome reward, Pazzi aims to capture the mad doctor before the FBI get their hands on him. Soon, Lecter comes back to America where the real game of cat and mouse ensues to conclusions where the word “gruesome” becomes an understatement.
With a crazy sociopath – whose motives often seem obtuse and unclear – followed by an icy, determined redheaded FBI agent, “Hannibal” at times seems like an extra-long episode of “The X-Files.” In “Silence …,” the threats of Lecter and the serial killer seemed real and pervasive; everybody appeared vulnerable. In “Hannibal,” Lecter is more cunning than cruel, more debonair than debilitating. Screenwriters David Mamet and Stephen Zaillian have taken all the unpredictable menace out of Lecter, transforming him into just a very intelligent sociopath with a seeming lack of purpose.
Though Hopkins and Moore are the finest of actors, there is an element of self-assurance and over-refinement in their performances that makes “Hannibal” too glossy to really be that thrilling. The Lecter we see in “Hannibal” is so bourgeois and gentle – a far cry from the disturbing and truly frightening doctor in “Silence.” This time around, the sense of connection between Lecter and Starling seems forced and ungenuine, with 10 years and a lack of chemistry between Hopkins and Moore perhaps accounting for this noticeable gap.
“As the culture gets used to being shocked,” columnist James Pinkerton writes, “the would-be shockers have to try harder.” Like a self-respecting woman leaving the groupie scene, let’s hope that directors can walk away from the gross-out fest and make something more meaningful.
Check out www.mgm.com/hannibal for more info.