In "The Silence of the Lambs," we met Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, got to look inside their heads a little bit. What we found was a rookie FBI agent with emotional reserves she never knew she could tap into and a cannibalistic killer with a soft spot for vulnerability.
Ten years later, with those characters fully imprinted in moviegoers' collective consciousness, it's time to have some fun with them. That's where "Hannibal" comes in. There's not much new ground trod on, nobody does anything that really surprises us, and the mood may be way too dark and grotesque for some tastes. But watching these two adversaries have another go at one another proves quite the thrill; even the good Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, slipping effortlessly back into the role) seems invigorated to be crossing paths with his Clarice (Julianne Moore filling in for the reluctant Jodie Foster) once again.
The 10 years since their first encounter have seemed a bit draggy for both of them. Starling's career has taken off, but the thrill is gone. Instead of matching wits with the omnivorous Dr. Lecter, she's now shooting it out with drug lords and getting herself entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the female FBI agent responsible for killing the most people.
As for Lecter, he's simply bored. After escaping prison and landing in Europe (setting off on a new life with that memorable line about "having an old friend for dinner"), he's settled into near-respectability, forging a new identity, setting up shop in Florence, reading Dante and concentrating on intellectual pursuits.
Truth is, these two people need each other. And Mason Verger (an unbilled and unrecognizable Gary Oldman) proves just the man to bring them back together.
Verger, an insanely wealthy and influential man who lives in a mansion so grandiose it even merits its own highway sign, is the only one of Lecter's victims to survive. His is a particularly sadistic encounter that left Verger slicing off his own face and Lecter feeding it to the pooch. But it's left him scarred, both physically - his face looks like something out of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum that's been in the sun too long - and emotionally. Since his unsavory encounter with the good doctor, his entire life has been dedicated to exacting revenge. His plan: bring Lecter to Virginia and feed him alive to some meat-eating pigs.(Warning, for those who haven't figured this out: There's little subtle, understated or even remotely wholesome about "Hannibal." It's rated R for a reason.)
Tired of false leads and dead-ends, Verger decides the best bait for luring Lecter out of hiding is Starling. Helped by the fact that she's recently run afoul of her superiors - thanks to a botched drug raid that wasn't her fault - Verger finds it a simple matter to pull a few of his well-connected strings, get her assigned back to the Lecter case and wait for her to entice him out of hiding.
Lecter, of course, takes the bait; as you might remember from "Silence," he's a bit protective of his Clarice. For Starling, the "reunion" proves a mixed blessing. For as fascinating, maybe even enticing, as she finds Lecter, she never forgets for a moment how dangerous he is, or that her job is to get him off the streets.
Thus the games begin, and watching the pieces being maneuvered about is one of the great joys offered by "Hannibal." Verger's near-limitless resources and influence make just about anything possible.
As welcome as it would have been to watch Foster revisit Starling 10 years later, it's probably a good thing she turned down the role; this is not the kind of movie on which she's built her career. And Moore brings a welcome new perspective, betraying a certain world-weariness all too appropriate for a 10-year FBI veteran who suddenly finds the only thing she's good for is working a case she thought she'd left behind a decade ago.
It's also just as well that "Silence" director Jonathan Demme decided against "Hannibal," since it's far from the character-driven, textured films he's proven so good at ("Melvin & Howard," "Philadelphia"). "Hannibal" requires someone with a more grandiose visual sense - something Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Gladiator") certainly brings to the party. He and cinematographer John Mathieson turn Florence into a supporting player and use a simple carousel to set up the film's most chilling encounter.
"Hannibal" also features a fine turn from Italian legend Giancarlo Giannini as Rinaldo Pazzi, a melancholy Florentine detective who mistakenly thinks he can capture Lecter himself and collect the considerable reward money being offered by Verger.
No doubt, many fans of "Silence" are going to be disappointed by its successor, perhaps justifiably. "Silence" kept itself in check throughout and built its horror honestly, whereas "Hannibal" just puts everything out there for us to watch. It also has a disturbing tendency toward the cartoonish, particularly Ray Liotta's turn as a weaselly Justice Department operative out to make trouble for Starling.
So sure, "Hannibal" isn't art. But for filmgoers with a taste for the absurd and a tolerance for the blackest of black humor, it's one heck of a thrill ride.
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Giancarlo Giannini
Directed by Ridley Scott
Released by Universal
Running time 131 minutes
Rated R (Strong gruesome violence, language)
Sun score: * * * 1/2