The long-awaited "Hannibal" makes its debut in theaters almost ten years to the day that its predecessor, "Silence of the Lambs", immortalized the names Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter (as well as the actors who portrayed them, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins) into the pantheon of popular consciousness. Taking what had long been the domain of 'serial killer thriller' exploitation flicks, director Jonathan Demme took Thomas Harris' best-selling novel and crafted a film of exceptional accomplishment and depth, qualities which were rewarded at the 1991 Oscars. In its wake, moviegoers saw a modest revival of the 'serial killer thriller', with a number of films that aspired to capture the magic of "Silence of the Lambs", such as "Kiss the Girls", "Seven", and the aptly-titled "Copycat". The influence of the film was also felt on television, as a number of dramas brought the trappings of the genre to the small screen, such as "The Profiler" and "Millennium", as well as providing the inspiration for yet another pop culture icon, Agent Scully of "The X-Files".
For the past decade, fans of the film eagerly awaited to find out what became of their favorite FBI agent and her fascinating nemesis. After seven years of procrastination, Thomas Harris finally completed the novel "Hannibal", which instantly landed on the bestseller lists in 1999. Producer Dino De Laurentiis, who produced "Silence of the Lambs", snapped up the rights to the book, and immediately got to work bringing it to the big screen. Unfortunately, the production was also plagued with numerous delays, including the early departure of director Demme (who was replaced by "Gladiator" helmer Ridley Scott), the replacement of scribe David Mamet ("State and Main") by Steven Zaillian ("A Civil Action"), and then Jodie Foster's very public refusal to reprise her role, citing conflicts with another project, as well as her displeasure with how the follow-up treated her character.
With the production problems resolved and "Hannibal" is finally seeing the light of day, the big question now is, 'Was it worth the wait?' Unfortunately, those expecting the same Oscar-caliber script and performances of "Silence of the Lambs" will walk away disappointed. Though "Hannibal" never comes near the lows of the more dubious entries of the 'serial killer thriller' genre (such as "The Watcher"), it is rather pedestrian in how it handles its two beloved characters. Instead of focusing on the psyche of Clarice, as well as her riveting mental and verbal spars with Hannibal Lecter, which gave "Silence of the Lambs" much of its emotional resonance, "Hannibal" is your by-the-numbers catch-the-killer-before-he-catches-you type of story, with complexity of its heroine being reduced to a two-dimensional tough-talker with a gun. Of course, the title of the film is "Hannibal", implying that the focus is on the cannibal himself, which it is-- alas, very few new insights about one of cinema's most interesting villains are revealed.
Taking place ten years after Hannibal (Hopkins) left the sly telephone message that he was 'having an old friend for dinner', former FBI-superstar Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore of "Magnolia", stepping into Foster's shoes) is an agent under fire in the aftermath of a botched joint FBI and DEA takedown that results in five fatalities. Though it seems that her FBI career is all but over, millionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman of "The Contender", in an uncredited appearance) pulls some strings to have Clarice track down the whereabouts of Hannibal Lecter, who is still at large. Verger's life is inextricably linked to Hannibal as well-- the only one of Hannibal's victim's to survive, the reclusive wheelchair-bound millionaire's face is permanently and horribly disfigured. Unknown to Clarice, Verger's interest in the case stems from a thirst for vengeance-- he wishes to make Hannibal suffer a painful and cruel death, and Clarice is the bait to snare him.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Florence, Italy, detective Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini, seen recently in the "Dune" TV miniseries) believes he has stumbled onto the whereabouts of Hannibal Lecter. However, instead of informing his superiors and the FBI, he opts to collar the master criminal himself in order to receive a $3 million reward being offered by Verger. Of course, Pazzi grossly miscalculates the danger posed by Hannibal, a lesson he quickly comes to regret.
Anyone familiar with the films of Ridley Scott ("Alien", "Blade Runner", and last year's "Gladiator") will see the director's handiwork in abundance in "Hannibal". Sumptuously shot and with his trademark visual style in abundance, "Hannibal" is certainly a great-looking film, especially in combination with the evocative score of Hans Zimmer (who also composed the music for "Gladiator"). Scott shows off his directing chops for action sequences in the film's opening drug raid, while the scenes set amidst the moody ambiance of Florence are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, when one looks beyond the visual flourishes, the underlying narrative is rather light.
For one thing, there's little interaction between Clarice and Hannibal, since they don't actually meet up until the film's third act. Even Clarice is noticeably absent for much of the film, with the script choosing to place its focus on the scheming of Verger and a cat-and-mouse game between Pazzi and Hannibal. Unfortunately, these peripheral characters are nowhere near as interesting as the potential chemistry between Clarice and Hannibal, and so there is a very mechanical feel to the onscreen action.
And when Clarice and Hannibal do finally meet, the climax is, well, anti-climactic-- their reunion is actually upstaged by some stomach-turning special effects involving Clarice's crooked boss, Department of Justice heavy Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta of "Cop Land"). And the story's resolution, which was actually changed after many readers complained about the implausibility of the novel's ending, ends up being flat, especially in the way it quickly dropkicks Clarice, negating whatever time was invested by the audience into rooting for her. Compared to the edge-of-your-seat ending of "Silence of the Lambs", where Clarice found herself trying to find her way through the dark basement belonging to Buffalo Bill, the denouement of "Hannibal" leaves you hungry for more.
Performance-wise, "Hannibal" fairs decently. Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal with the same sly and droll sense of mischief he brought to the first film, though this incarnation of Hannibal is somewhat toned down to elicit audience sympathy. Julianne Moore does the best she can with her limited screen time, as well as the shallow treatment of her character, and it's a shame such a gifted actress was given such pedestrian role. Of the supporting characters, Gary Oldman, who is buried under latex for most of the film, is more-than-sufficiently vile as the film's 'true' villain, making Hopkins seem well-behaved and inoffensive by comparison.
There is no doubt that "Hannibal" will make MGM Studios a pile of money, with fans of the first film clamoring for more, as well as the relative dearth of other 'blockbusters' in the February slate. Unfortunately, "Hannibal" doesn't quite live up to the hype. It certainly is a decent effort, well above the average mediocrity infesting theaters at this time of year, but in contrast to "Silence of the Lambs", "Hannibal" is a rather conventional thriller that is only made remarkable by the star presence of Anthony Hopkins and the opulent lensing of Ridley Scott. What should have been a lavish four-course meal ends up being little more than an appetizer, albeit a tasty one.