Friday, April 1, 2011

Hannibal Movie Review

This review was written in February 2001 and is presented here for the first time.

There is an unfortunate stigma that comes with sequels: the belief that it must be as good as or better than the earlier film in the series. Comparisons are always inevitable in such cases, but if a sequel can stand on its own, why is that not good enough? I've always maintained that the third installment in the Godfather series would be an excellent movie had it not been the third in a series of fantastic films. Hannibal, the sequel to 1991's critically acclaimed Silence of the Lambs, now faces the task of being measured against its predecessor.

The plot is nothing very original, utilizing standard detective thriller conventions including a scene where our hero, Clarice Starling, is forced to turn in her badge and gun. How director Ridley Scott takes us through this plot is a bit more interesting. We don't even see the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter until about 40 minutes in. Until then we're introduced to the key characters including agent Starling. In Silence of the Lambs, as played by Jodie Foster, Starling was a young FBI trainee, skilled in her job yet nervous and sometimes hesitant. In Hannibal, as portrayed by Julianne Moore she is now a confident and seasoned veteran. We see her in an early scene taking control of what will shortly become a deadly shootout.

The other key characters are Mason Verger, a wealthy tycoon and the only surviving victim of Hannibal Lecter who happens to be much creepier than Lecter; Paul Krendler, another federal agent who hopes to get the reward money for capturing Lecter; and Inspector Pazzi of Florence who unknowingly stumbles upon Lecter during a routine investigation. Verger (Gary Oldman) is a hideously deformed man as a result of Lecter's vicious attack, and he now seeks revenge. It should be noted that Oldman is unrecognizable as a result of the very rubber-looking mask he wears. Krendler (Ray Liotta) has worked out a secret deal with Verger whereby they will use Starling as bait to attract Lecter back home so that he may be viciously tortured by Verger's man-eating boars.

Before all this happens, however, Starling must be put back on the case. So Verger informs the FBI he may have new information on Lecter's whereabouts but he will only share it with Starling. After interviewing Verger, she revisits some old files and Barney (Frankie Faison), the orderly who cared for Lecter while he was institutionalized. These early scenes are accompanied by flashbacks and tape recordings which serve to remind us of some of the conversations Lecter and Starling had in the first movie.

There is also some very good character development for Lecter and Starling. We learn that Lecter kills those who forge an assault on good taste or those who treat him badly. Barney says he is not afraid of Lecter coming for him, because he always treated him with kindness. Starling shows herself to be more of a psychological detective - she gets inside Lecter's head trying to understand him. She doesn't simply reduce him to a psychotic. This hearkens back to the rapport and mutual respect for each other established between Lecter and Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

Meanwhile, in Florence, Lecter has recently been appointed a museum curator while Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) investigates the mysterious disappearance of Lecter's predecessor – presumably murdered. Pazzi learns from the FBI web site (in one of the few realistic uses of the Internet in a movie) that Dr. Fell is actually Hannibal Lecter. Then his attention turns toward the reward Verger is offering. At about the same time, Starling's investigation has led her to Florence, but all of her warnings will not save Pazzi.

For about three-quarters of the film, we are treated to excellent acting, good writing and directing. But what could have turned out to be a very good movie devolves into a mess in the third act. After Pazzi turns up dead, Verger needs a new plan. He and Krendler decide to put Starling in distress believing that Lecter will come to her aid. So they arrange to have her suspended from duty. This is where the problems begin. It's difficult to believe that a man so exacting in the ways he eludes the authorities (Lecter holds his wine glass with a napkin, wiping off the DNA traces from the rim before leaving the restaurant) would then travel right back into the lion's den to check on Starling.

The ending, which has been changed from Thomas Harris’s original ending, leaves a very bad taste (no pun intended). The details are too complicated to go into and it wouldn't be fair for me to ruin all the surprise in it, but Lecter deals with the two real villains in the movie (Verger and Krendler) in very gory and disgusting ways. There is a final dinner scene which dances around and eventually stumbles over the line of absurdity.

It seems screenwriters Steve Zaillian and David Mamet (on board to collect a hefty paycheck?) painted themselves into a corner after having Lecter return to Washington. They needed to establish the main conflict but rather than maintain an interesting character study, they went for the violent ending that seems rushed and not well thought out.

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