Ridley Scott's Hannibal, with a screenplay by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian, is being released exactly 10 years after Silence of the Lambs, the film that established Hannibal Lecter as an iconic villain in our culture, right up there with A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger, Friday the 13th's Jason and Halloween's Michael Myers, though one suspects that novelist Thomas Harris was shooting for something more like Professor Moriarty. Not only did director Jonathan Demme's original film manage to transcend the usual shackles of genre, at least in terms of acclaim, it did so in spades: What was essentially a glossy, upscale slasher movie won five Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Actress), only the third film ever to do so. Add its phenomenal financial success to that, and you have a near-irresistible demand for a sequel -- particularly given how blatantly the ending seemed to be setting one up.
Even though I wasn't a fan of Silence, it had things to admire, in particular the charismatic performances of Anthony Hopkins as the bizarre Dr. Lecter and Jodie Foster as conflicted FBI agent Clarice Starling. Demme, an alumnus of Roger Corman's B-movie factory, knew how to crank up the thrills, yet he threw in at least one cheap red herring that Corman would never have sanctioned -- the deliberately misleading cross-cutting during the police raid late in the film. The only things that stopped this scene and the story's other flaws from sinking the film were the dazzling leads.
Hannibal has Hopkins but not Foster, who declined to participate. Julianne Moore steps in to replace her, and she's about as good a replacement as you could hope for -- which is not to say that's she's much more than adequate. Foster's amazing performance is so ingrained in the popular consciousness that Moore is forced to play against memories of the best work of one of her best contemporaries. Forced into doing what often feels like a Vegas impression of her predecessor, Moore is never able to imbue her character with the level of complex and ambivalent emotions that Foster conveyed.
The screenplay follows Harris' 1999 novel, excising one major character and a few extraneous subplots. The biggest changes come toward the end: Harris' book so ridiculously and unbelievably violated the Starling character that no one would have been foolish enough to reproduce the material onscreen.
In the grand action-film tradition, things start off with a shoot-'em-up sequence in Washington, D.C., that has only tangential relevance to what follows. Starling leads an ill-fated drug bust that results in bureaucratic attacks on her competence, spearheaded by the crass and politically ambitious Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a Justice Department official who's had it in for her ever since she refused his sexual advances. Her new notoriety draws a weirdly supportive letter from the fugitive Lecter, who has been missing for seven years. Thanks to this development, she is reassigned to his case and is quickly hot on his trail. Even hotter on his trail, however, is meat-packing multimillionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a pedophile who was paralyzed and hideously mutilated in an encounter with the good doctor many years earlier. Verger wants to catch Lecter before the FBI does so that he can personally torture him to a slow, hideous death.
Verger pretends to cooperate with Starling, but he is funding his own manhunt, which includes a $3 million reward for information that leads him to Lecter. It is a sign of the film's sloppy plotting that Verger picks up Lecter's trail for reasons utterly coincidental to Starling's involvement. In investigating a missing-persons case in Florence, Italian police inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) has recognized newly hired museum curator Dr. Fell as Lecter. Pazzi keeps his information secret from his colleagues, hoping to collect Verger's reward. When Pazzi's plans go wildly awry, Lecter escapes to America, where he locates Starling and manages to avoid Verger's armies of henchmen.
Hannibal's narrative structure couldn't be more rickety and lopsided if a child had built it out of Popsicle sticks and spit. The movie lingers for 20 or 30 minutes in America, setting up Verger and Starling, before Lecter first appears. Then fully an hour is consumed by the Florence subplot, with only occasional cutaways to Starling's exploits in the United States, though at one point she seems entirely absent for a half-hour or more. The final 45 minutes take place in America, where all the main characters come together. This fragmentary storytelling makes it difficult for the audience to identify with Starling, or Lecter, or anyone else. In Silence, we were clearly positioned with Starling, even though the immediate point of view often switched to the crazed killer or his victim. But, in Hannibal, the filmmakers spend almost half the film dithering about in a subplot that has little relevance to the relationship at the heart of the story -- the strange bond between Lecter and Starling.
On some level, however, this is a relief: A large part of what made Silence work was the enigma and ambiguity of the central relationship. A sequel had no choice but to examine this further, even though the relationship never made much sense in the first place and was put over almost entirely by the power of Foster's performance. (Foster wisely opted out of this turkey after reading the script.) There is no point to a sequel unless this central relationship progresses or grows, and there is no way here for it to do so without revealing how essentially absurd it was in the first place. The ludicrous ending of Harris' novel displays this problem more clearly than anything.
In short, like the book, this is a work whose only reason to exist is money rather than art. In fact, rare is the film that has had "paycheck" written so clearly all over it, for nearly all the participants. Hopkins is effective, if often verging into self-parody. Giannini looks as if he took his assignment more seriously, investing some real humanity into an Italianized rendition of the classic shabby cop. Gary Oldman, whose name appears only in the closing credits, is unrecognizable as Verger -- a toothless character with no facial features to speak of. Despite the toothlessness, Oldman, for better or worse, immediately sets about chewing the scenery with his trademark gusto.
Director Scott -- whose vastly variable output ranges from Thelma & Louise and Alien to 1492 and Legend -- seems to have signed on just for the sake of a Florentine vacation. A filmmaker with a much richer, more identifiable visual style than Demme's, Scott's distinctive eye is apparent all throughout the Italian sequences: He makes Florence look like a Renaissance version of the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, which he also made. The American material feels tossed-off, though, as if Scott lost interest within moments of passing through customs.
Like other ill-considered sequels -- the later Psycho films leap to mind -- Hannibal is more than just a disappointment. It is also a spoiler, possibly weakening the impact of Silence for its fans. The new information the movie unwisely gives us about Hannibal and Clarice destroys some of the mystery in their relationship, thus retroactively sullying the memories of Silence.
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