Hackneyed Hannibal

The many insurmountable problems of Hannibal begin with its title: Hannibal Lecter is more interesting as a threat than a reality. The Silence of the Lambs, the movie's much-loved prequel, based on another novel of the series by author Thomas Harris, confined Anthony Hopkins to both jail cell and supporting status for 90 minutes. He stalked his cage like a tiger-but what, we wondered, would happen if the tiger were unleashed?

Nothing of note, as it turns out. Lecter on the loose-in Florence, to be precise-is little other than a pedestrian bogeyman. And in Hannibal, Ridley Scott's appallingly shallow and hazy follow-up, his demonic mystery is dispelled by rote slasher tedium and his overplayed indulgence in effete luxury (garden opera, Renaissance art, parfumeries). Lecter's a snob with a very bad temper.

A temper that's infected FBI agent Clarice Starling, as it happens. Played here by Julianne Moore, pinch-hitting for Silence of the Lambs star Jodie Foster, Starling's been disgraced by a botched drug raid, and now ranks as the most lethal female agent in the world. That doesn't thrill her boorish superior, Peter Krendler (Ray Liotta, in an unimaginably one-note performance). But when Lecter, identified by the curious Florentine Inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), stages a very public disembowelment, Starling snaps to attention.

The mutually obsessed beauty and her beast don't share the screen for almost two hours, during which time David Mamet and Steven Zaillian's talky screenplay bludgeons us with yin-yang metaphor. That dynamic was explored more subtly in Lambs, which harnessed Lecter and Starling to an engaging, propulsive plot that characterized them by actions rather than words. Conversely, Hannibal steeps itself in dull monologues that strap the characters to a languid, unfocused philosophical discourse. Moore, in particular, is cruelly underserved: The listless narrative of Hannibal damns her Clarice to professional drudgery and passive victimhood. Julianne can probably relate.

The movie casts about for a plot, but the best it can do is sic various nasties on the doctor-all courtesy of Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), Lecter's only surviving victim and twisted sister, who hopes to feed his assailant to a menagerie of giant boars. Of these, only the Pazzi character is of interest, maintaining his dignity even as he loses his intestines. Still, even the novel could not resist facile metaphor: the word pazzi translates as "crazy." I wonder if "Harris" means "pretentious."

And whether "Scott" means "hack." A brazenly commercial director who fancies himself an artist, Scott is given to imposing belletristic flourishes on projects which don't need them: With Gladiator, he unsuccessfully attempted to wed MTV kinesis-a hyperreal palette, frenzied fast-forwards-with an old-fashioned swords-and-sandals epic, and concocted last year's ugliest, most bloated drama. Emboldened by that movie's commercial take, he now lards Hannibal with the same baroque visuals and lazy, affected symbolism. Contrast this shiftless, limp movie with the spare force of The Silence of the Lambs: That film found, in its taut editing and clean camera work, a visual focus that complemented its no-frills storyline.

In Scott's defense, not even Lambs director Jonathan Demme could have wrought much from Harris' source material. The author knows how to tap our primal fears: A costume sewn from human skin-the grisly trump card of The Silence of the Lambs-certainly makes for a terrifying sartorial possibility, but mutant boars trained to devour people? Too contrived, too self-consciously bizarre, too ridiculous-too much.

I watched a lot of this movie through my sleeve, especially the gruesome dinner party scene, in which Lecter spoon-feeds a lobotomized Krendler his own brain. It's not the gore that's gratuitous-it's the scene itself, which does not conclude the plot, since there is no plot, and since the ineptly assembled events preceding it might have led anywhere else. And Liotta's character, for that matter, hasn't impacted the action in the slightest: He's an impossibly crude caricature who spouts chauvinistic dreck even while nibbling on grey matter. The guy is, from scene one, slated for comeuppance-and nothing else. The story has drafted him only to sacrifice him in an unspeakable manner, and that's far sicker than any crime committed by Lecter.

Hannibal is as boring, hollow and slack as its predecessor was bracing, rich and breathless.


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