A little over a year ago, I read Thomas Harris's novel "Hannibal" in about two days. Like millions of others, I had become fascinated with the character Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter after seeing the 1991 Jonathan Demme film The Silence of the Lambs and reading "Red Dragon," which also featured the character. There was something about this most evil of villains that caught my attention, and I couldn't wait to find out what he was up to. Unfortunately, when I finished the book, I slammed it down in disgust. The story started out all right, with agent Clarice Starling trying to locate Lecter, who was somewhere out in the world doing who knows what. But then it got a little weird, with a subplot about a guy who wanted to feed the famous killer to some wild boars. Later, it switched to a rather boring and off-track subplot about a troubled Italian detective who is also trying to find Lecter. And then there was that ending...that nonsensical ending that seemed to betray everything Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling were ever about. It made me mad. I hated that book.
Now comes the inevitable movie version. I had hoped that the first-rate filmmakers, including director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and writers David Mamet (State & Main) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List), would use the opportunity to fix the book's mistakes. They didn't. They kept all the mistakes intact, except for the ending. It's been changed to something that is just as bad, if not worse, than what Harris put on the page. Consequently, Hannibal is a completely unsatisfying movie.
Meanwhile, that Italian detective, Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), begins to realize that his friend Dr. Fell may in fact be the serial killer the whole world is looking for. Rather than turn him in to the proper authorities, Pazzi decides to hand Lecter over to Verger (big mistake) and collect the reward. Clarice gets wind of the plan and attempts to save Hannibal from the boars and put him back into prison. Her process is hampered mainly by Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a Justice Department official who also has his eyes on the money.
There are so many tactical errors in Hannibal that it's hard to know where to start. Remaining so faithful to the book is one of them. (How come filmmakers always change good books, but remain loyal to bad ones?) The scenes with Pazzi are still an unwelcome intrusion into what we really want -- namely, more of the relationship between Lecter and Starling. In the movie, they don't even have an exchange until at least halfway through. Of course, when they do, there's no tension. Remember that scene in Silence of the Lambs where their fingers touched as she passed a file to him through the bars? There was great suspense in that moment. In contrast, Hannibal has a scene in which Lecter breaks into Starling's home while she sleeps, and it generates no suspense whatsoever.
That's because of tactical error #2 - Hannibal Lecter should never be out of his cell. What made him so scary in Lambs was that he was always shown in some form of imprisonment, be it locked in a plexiglass cell or strapped to a pushcart with a mask over his face. Those things gave the impression that Lecter was so incredibly dangerous that he absolutely needed to be restrained at all times. Letting him run loose in the world takes away that sense of danger. He comes across as less fierce and, as someone observantly remarked to me, less narcissistic. In other words, he just isn't as scary when the shackles are off.
Hopkins is still good in the role, and Julianne Moore is one of the few actresses talented enough to fill Jodie Foster's shoes. I also think that Ridley Scott has done a good job directing the picture, at least from a visual standpoint. He knows how to create an atmosphere of things being off-balance. Unfortunately, that skill doesn't matter much when you have the absurdity of wild carnivorous boars running around in a bloodthirst. (I should mention that, like everything else, that particular subplot doesn't have any kind of payoff.)
Last, but not least, we come to that troublesome ending, which is sure to be much-discussed by audiences. Some will find it to be one of the most stomach-churning scenes in motion picture history. Others will share my view - that it's too ridiculous to be either scary or disgusting. The last 20 minutes of Hannibal go right over the rails, choosing to end the story with a scene that might seem more appropriate to a hard-core horror flick like Re-animator than a supposed psychological thriller. I had to fight to keep from laughing at the conclusion. A few people around me were audibly grossed out, but the scene is played with such ineptitude that it almost bordered on camp for me. I might have gone so far as to rate the movie slightly higher had it not crapped out with such a pathetic ending.
The verdict is simple: everything about this project is a loser. "Hannibal" is a book that never should have been written, and Hannibal is a movie that never should have been made.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hannibal is rated R for strong gruesome violence, some nudity, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.
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