Hannibal (2001)

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri

Would it be considered out of the question to say that the pursuit of a monster can lead to the creation of other monsters? Throughout history, there are examples of such occurrences. Most any time a foreign country gets involved in another nation’s civil war, always for political reasons, there will be lasting repercussions. Sometimes, the soldiers of that foreign country come home broken and commit acts of terror, as Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City in 1995. On a smaller scale, officers of the law can become so consumed by their line of work that the safety of the innocent becomes secondary to the need to take down the bad guy. What of the monster’s victims? Not just the families of the deceased, but those who miraculously survive their encounter with evil. Can they move on with their lives, or does vengeance become the only thing that drives them?

Ten years after she put an end to the serial killer Jame Gumb, a.k.a. “Buffalo Bill,” FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Jodie Foster) is disgraced when a drug raid ends in a deadly shootout resulting in one dead law officer, and Clarice herself having to shoot an armed mother. Clarice has never forgotten about the case that made her famous, nor the serial killer at large whose clues helped her solve it. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), now living in Florence, Italy, has also never forgotten about Clarice, nor how much she intrigues him. Living in anonymity is no good for a man of Lecter’s grisly past, and he’s been looking forward to coming out of retirement. His only surviving victim, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, under heavy prosthetic makeup), has been looking forward to Lecter’s resurfacing as well, for the sake of vengeance. Italian Inspector Renaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) wants to capture Dr. Lecter also, but his interest is a selfish one. Pazzi has read about the $3 million reward, and it’s all he can think about.

Inevitably, comparisons are going to be drawn between the two actresses who played Clarice Starling. This is somewhat unfair to Julianne Moore, and for two reasons. For one, Jodie Foster’s performance in “The Silence of the Lambs” is iconic, and as such was never going to be matched by anyone, much less topped. The comparisons also don’t make sense because of the in-story time differential. It’s been a full decade since the events of the previous film. How many of us can say we are exactly who we were ten years ago? Clarice Starling cannot. Even though she still sees her job in a very black & white, good guys vs. bad guys sense, the job has changed her. The younger Clarice, who still needed to learn to “check the corner” when entering a room, might well have hesitated and died during that botched drug raid. The more experienced Clarice is no longer plagued by nightmares of screaming lambs, and her resolve is matched by her take-no-crap attitude. This attitude comes in handy when dealing with condescending members of the opposite sex like Justice Dept. official Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), the same kind of man as those who imagined her naked when speaking with her when she was still an Academy student.

Anthony Hopkins appears to have absorbed the role of Hannibal Lecter so completely that I would imagine he could play the part in his sleep. It was said during the process of casting that there could be no “Hannibal” movie without the presence of Hopkins, and the results reflect this. He doesn’t quite have the chemistry with Julianne Moore that he did with Jodie Foster, but having worked with Moore before was certainly to the benefit of both his performance and the movie itself. You can tell these two are familiar with one another. Never for a moment do you doubt that, when Hopkins speaks to Moore, Hannibal is addressing Clarice. Though it was touched on in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the point is really driven home that Dr. Lecter’s killings tend to follow a certain code. Just as Dexter Morgan (of TV’s “Dexter”) only kills other killers, Lecter tends to only kill the rude and inconsiderate. In the case of Benjamin Raspail, Lecter was providing a public service in ridding the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra of a lousy flautist.

Gary Oldman is the great chameleon of our time. Outside of the “Harry Potter” and “Dark Knight” franchises, I can’t think of any roles which he has tackled more than once, and always each one is so remarkably different from the next. As Mason Verger, the homosexual who was drugged by Hannibal Lecter and encouraged to remove the skin from his own face with a glass shard while feeding the pieces to his dogs, Oldman spends the entire movie heavily made up, wearing contact lenses to demonstrate his character’s sensitivity to light, and either lying in bed or getting around via a motorized wheelchair. He lives in a gigantic estate, but Verger has little use for material possessions, save for the few that will help him accomplish his goal. Verger’s sole purpose in life now is to serve payback to Dr. Lecter for the pain he has suffered, in the form of a pack of wild boars to which he plans to feed Hannibal, piece by piece.

The flaw in “Hannibal” lies not in the casting, nor in Ridley Scott’s directing, but in the story. The third in Thomas Harris’s series of Hannibal Lecter novels simply doesn’t provide as compelling a narrative as the creepy detective story in “Manhunter” (the 1986 film version of “Red Dragon”) or the dark, macabre tale in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Hannibal himself is a much less interesting character when he is out in the open than when he is behind bars. The violence gets much more of an emphasis here than in either of the previous two theatrical outings. People get stabbed, slit from ear to ear, hanged, disemboweled, and eaten… and those are just things that happen to Hannibal’s victims! Had the film gone with the book’s controversial ending, it would have displayed such an out-of-character change for Clarice as to negate a lot of the growth she’s gone through between “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.” Thankfully, Ridley Scott recognized this. However, the film’s version of the ending isn’t much of an improvement. It is more like an average cut of beef: it’s inoffensive and unremarkable, yet we’ll eat it up anyway because it sits there in front of us. Despite this, “Hannibal” earns a place on my DVD shelf alongside its predecessors for the furtherance of the Hannibal/Clarice (unrequited) love story, for another in Gary Oldman’s long list of great characters, and for demonstrating the inherent dangers of obsession.

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