February 16, 2001

Hard to Swallow

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Take the dark directorial style of Englishman Ridley Scott, the screen-writing of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, a story by novelist Thomas Harris, a score by Hans Zimmer, toss in an Academy Award winner, add some gore, salt to taste, and you’ve got the exact recipe for MGM Studio’s latest suspense-thriller, Hannibal.

A sequel to 1991’s acclaimed film, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal hit theaters last Friday, garnering big returns for MGM over the weekend. However, for many moviegoers expecting a tasty dessert to follow up the succulent thrills provided by its predecessor, Hannibal may leave a bad taste in your mouth.

In Silence of the Lambs, a young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster), is given the task of interviewing Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh and mind control. By the end of the film, a strange and frightening relationship has grown between the two, and Dr. Lecter manages to escape custody while being transported to a prison in Tennessee.

Hannibal picks up the story 10 years later, after Agent Starling (played by Julianne Moore this time) has gained a reputation as a skilled federal sleuth. Dr. Lecter, on the other hand, has faded into obscurity — and has even been removed from the FBI’s most-wanted list. During his self-proclaimed retirement, Dr. Lecter has been living in Florence, dining at outdoor cafes, and actively avoiding detection by the authorities.

After Starling is grilled by the press following a Washington DC drug bust gone wrong, one of Dr. Lecter’s victims (the only one that survived his attack), Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), gives the FBI a call, offering information regarding Dr. Lecter, on the stipulation that Starling be re-assigned to the case.

Dr. Lecter, meanwhile, returns to the United States and informs Agent Starling that he’s planning to “come out of retirement.” This threat is one Starling does not take lightly, but due to the influence of a corrupt member of the Justice Department, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), Starling is placed on administrative leave from the FBI.

This convoluted story culminates in a gruesome scene in Agent Starling’s home. Dr. Lecter, a connoisseur of fine food, decides to dine with Starling. Here’s the catch: Krendler stops by. Dr. Lecter then proceeds to cut off the top of Krendler’s head with a bone-saw (he is a doctor after all), cook his brain piece by piece and feed it to him. If you have a weak stomach, you probably shouldn’t watch Ray Liotta eat his own brain.

Though the screenplay is decidedly smarter than those of most current horror flicks (see Lost Souls for proof of this), Hannibal doesn’t live up to the standard set by Silence of the Lambs. For many viewers, the most frightening aspect of the first film was the psychological quandary facing Starling. This is the exact element missing in Hannibal. The thought that a morbid genius like Lecter could make someone his own worst enemy is more frightening than gallons of fake blood and cinema tricks.

Perhaps the film’s sole redemption is found in its beautiful cinematography. The scenes shot in Florence are worthy of a nod, and director Ridley Scott’s characteristic use of water and eerie lighting is everything you could have expected of this acclaimed filmmaker.

Hopkins’ performance is, of course, fairly well done. Unfortunately, even though Julianne Moore is a fine actress, Jodie Foster left some pretty large shoes to fill when she declined to act in the movie.

Hannibal will doubtless do what MGM hoped it would: make a ton of money. For Scott’s sake, I hope he can live off the dough for a while, because Hannibal will most likely be another forgotten sequel. While Hannibal doesn’t completely tarnish Scott’s resume, it can’t compare with his other impressive films.

With a little luck and a few years of intensive therapy, Hannibal will surely drop from our collective memory. After all, who remembers what the sequels Psycho 2 and Jaws 3 were all about?

Archived article by Nate Brown