Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 20, 2009)
Sometimes sequels live up to expectations, sometimes they don’t. In the latter category, we find 2001’s Hannibal, the continuation of the story started in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. While not a disaster, Hannibal seemed like a major disappointment that didn’t even remotely live up with the high level established in Lambs.
At the start, we meet Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a millionaire obsessed with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Hannibal attacked Verger years earlier, and the disfigured man remains the only person ever to survive an encounter with the cannibalistic psychiatrist. As we gradually learn, Verger plots his final revenge against Lecter.
In the meantime, we catch up with FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore). An attempted arrest goes wrong due to inappropriate actions from a gung-ho DC cop named Bolton (Terry Serpico), and Starling takes the blame. Verger wants to use Starling as part of his scheme, so he agrees to get her off the hook if she comes to speak with him.
Verger tells the authorities he has new information to entice Clarice out to his Virginia estate. Department of Justice official Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) says he will take care of the media if she talks to Verger. This leads her back to former caretaker Barney (Frankie Faison) and puts her on the case again.
The movie then shifts to Florence, Italy, where “Dr. Fell” – a pseudonymous Hannibal - seeks the job as the curator of the Capponi Library. His predecessor went missing, so local Inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) interviews “Fell”. Pazzi becomes more interested in Dr. Fell when he discovers that the FBI wants a copy of a store security tape for unstated reasons. Pazzi tails Fell and seeks the reward for the capture of Hannibal to keep his hot young wife (Francesca Neri) in style. The movie follows the various cat and mouse elements and watches the developments of the relationships.
Background time: I loved Lambs but I paid almost no attention to the progress of Hannibal before it hit movie screens. I didn't read the book, and I knew virtually nothing about the movie other than the fact that Ridley Scott would direct it, Anthony Hopkins would return, and Julianne Moore would take over for Jodie Foster. Oh, I vaguely recalled hearing that part of it took place in Italy, but that completely summed up my foreknowledge of this movie. If I know I’ll go to see a new movie, I like to remain "willfully ignorant" and know as little about them as possible.
Despite my affection for Lambs, I maintained fairly low expectations for Hannibal. Even with my lack of advance information, I just had a bad feeling about the project. However, I wasn't prepared for just how unpleasant this clunker would be.
While I don't want or expect a sequel to rehash its predecessor, Hannibal failed to deliver anything remotely close to the chilling and creepy experience of Lambs. That movie was a sublimely unsettling psychological thriller, while Hannibal was nothing more than a gross-out hack job. The film's scenes of graphic gore existed for no reason other than to hide the movie's extreme lack of substance.
I like Moore very much – in general, I prefer her to Foster as an actress - but she was a dud as Clarice, and Hopkins seemed without fire as well. There was absolutely no spark between the two. Since the chemistry between Clarice and Hannibal fired the first film, the second couldn't survive without it.
Hannibal also faltered because it offered no suspense or memorable drama. It was an exercise in the inevitable; no real twists or turns made things interesting. The film moved at a glacial pace and never went anywhere.
Even the "leaving room for a sequel" ending of Hannibal felt incredibly unsatisfying. With the first film, the conclusion felt a little like they wanted to keep the door open for a sequel, but it still fit the movie's theme and finished the story on an appropriately unsettling note. In Hannibal, it just seemed like a cheap and stupid way to end the picture.
"Cheap" and "stupid" are two excellent ways to describe Hannibal. The original film succeeded because it rose above its genre trappings, but the sequel simply wallows in them. While it’s good that the filmmakers didn’t simply remake the first movie, they certainly could have done something more distinctive and engaging than this.