Hannibal (2001) -**½
I think we can all agree that Dino De Laurentiis was very much the sort to make the same mistake twice. Indeed, there were some mistakes that he made over and over and over again. There was at least one time, though, when De Laurentiis undeniably did learn the lesson his errors were trying to teach him. Disappointed by the returns on Manhunter, he effectively gave away his option to film the sequel, and thus could only sit dumbfounded on the sidelines as The Silence of the Lambs made all the money, garnered all the media attention, and even defeated the ironclad genre bigotry of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to win five Oscars. When Thomas Harris released yet a third novel featuring Hannibal Lecter in 1999, De Laurentiis made sure to keep the adaptation rights for himself. And when you really look at it, Hannibal had the makings of practically the perfect Dino De Laurentiis production; it was certainly better suited to his sensibilities than either of its predecessors. Whereas Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs had been otherwise ordinary police procedurals with the ghoulishness of the crimes dialed up to eleven, Hannibal was just flat-out bonkers. It read more like some deeply disturbed fan’s baroque slashfic than a legitimate sequel, breaking with the pattern of the two previous books by putting Lecter at center stage and giving him a Nightmare on Elm Street 4-like antihero makeover. It promoted Barney the orderly, of all people, to viewpoint character status, and embroiled him in a will-they-or-won’t-they with the main villain’s steroid monster sister. It had a man with no face, a sounder of anthropophagous hogs, drug-induced auto-cannibalism, and strangulation by live moray eel. And yes, it ended with Lecter and FBI agent Clarisse Starling coupled in the skeeviest Stockholm Syndrome romance you ever saw, and worse, it invited us to take that as a happy ending. The whole book is so thoroughly misconceived that I can’t help but applaud it a little. Just the thing for the executive producer of Orca, Dune, and The White Buffalo, right?
Be that as it may, De Laurentiis was sharp enough to recognize that success for Hannibal the movie depended on framing it as a sequel to Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and not as a sequel to his own Manhunter. That was a bit of a problem, though, because most of the Silence of the Lambs principals took one look at the new novel (which Harris circulated to all of them in a touching display of misplaced pride), and noped out of there like an octopus in an internet meme. Dino put the script through fifteen rounds of rewrites (including at least one draft by David Mamet!) in the hope of getting the band back together, but in the end, only Anthony Hopkins signed on. (Hey, after all those years as a Serious Actor, who wouldn’t want to bask a little longer in the novelty of being a Star instead?) Nevertheless, you can see why De Laurentiis would count himself ahead of the game even without Demme or Jodie Foster. He had Hopkins, he had Mamet, and Ridley Scott was one hell of a directorial consolation prize! Furthermore, Hannibal did well enough at the box office to consolidate a fully fledged Hannibal Lecter franchise, even if the bottle remained noticeably free of captive lightning the second time around. Big deal if the movie was lousy…
Chances are you just barely remember Barney the orderly (Frankie Faison, the only person I know of to appear in both Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, albeit as two different characters) assisting the crooked Dr. Chilton at his Baltimore lunatic asylum in the previous film. Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, from RoboCop and The Unborn) was paying more attention. That’s because Verger was the only victim of psycho psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins, of course) who lived to tell the tale of their encounter, and he therefore maintains a deep personal interest in all things Lecter-related. When the mad shrink escaped, it fell to Barney to clean out his cell, and the orderly has done very well for himself selling Hannibal the Cannibal’s personal effects— quite a few of them to Verger. Today, Barney is peddling a nifty artifact indeed, the creepy muzzle with which Lecter was fitted for his interview with Senator Ruth Martin of Tennessee. It’s truly a must-have item so far as Verger is concerned, and Barney goes home with a check for a quarter of a million dollars.
As the size of that check suggests, Mason Verger is an extremely rich man. In fact, he’s so wealthy that his home is portrayed by the same western North Carolina mansion that stood in for Richie Rich’s place in 1994. It’s all old money, too. Mason was the fuckup in the family, though, a teenaged child-molester turned 20-something dope fiend and asphyxiation freak who was kept out of prison and the newspapers only because Daddy could afford to buy both the local police and the local press. The elder Verger was hoping that the celebrated Dr. Lecter could straighten out his wayward boy, but instead Lecter got Mason high and hypnotized him into cutting off his own face a piece at a time and feeding it to the family dog. That was in the midst of an autoerotic strangulation session, too, so that Mason broke his neck while he was up there flailing around with that shard of mirror glass. The incident left him looking like a quadriplegic Irish bog mummy, so you can’t exactly blame the guy for constantly dreaming up elaborate and hideous revenge schemes. Nor is it any surprise that Verger has spent the ten years since Lecter flew the coop keeping a vigilant eye out for anything that looks like a trace of the doctor.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC, FBI agent Clarisse Starling (now played by Julianne Moore, of Evolution and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) leads a multi-jurisdictional task force in a sting operation against notorious drug kingpin (or should I say queenpin?) Evelda Drumgo (Hazelle Goodman). The bust goes bad when one of the DC cops— a thin-skinned testosterone junkie who can’t stand taking orders from a woman— defies Starling’s command to abort the mission due to unacceptable risk of bystander casualties. Officer Macho Insecurity precipitates a shootout at midday in an open-air produce market, and Starling is placed in the impossible position of facing down the heavily armed Drumgo while the drug boss uses her own baby as a human shield. Drumgo opens fire; Starling replies in kind. Incredibly, the baby survives, but Starling’s career is another matter. She gets hung out to dry in the aftermath, not only by the Bureau’s deputy director (Francis Guinan, from The Serpent and the Rainbow and Journey to the Center of the Earth), but also by a devious prick from the Department of Justice by the name of Paul Krendler (In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale’s Ray Liotta). Starling gets a reprieve at the last minute, though, from none other than Mason Verger. Verger remembers Starling well as the agent who apparently developed a rapport with Hannibal Lecter while cracking the Buffalo Bill case, and he’s been counting on her specifically to run Lecter to ground one day. It simply wouldn’t do to have her suspended from duty— especially now that Verger just got Lecter reinstated on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Enough of the right officials owe Verger enough favors that Starling’s trip to the pillory gets diverted into a lateral move heading up Mason’s own pet project.
As for the object of all that string-pulling, he’s hiding out in Florence, Italy, posing as a Medievalist called Dr. Fell. “Fell’s” current post is with an extremely prestigious institution, but it’s only temporary. He got the job some months ago on a stopgap basis, when the incumbent went unaccountably missing— I wonder how that could have happened, huh? It’s been long enough now, however, that there’s a movement within the faculty to offer Fell the position for real. Still, not everyone has given up on finding the missing professor. Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini, from Mimic and The Sensuous Sicilian) of the Florentine police, for example. Now there’s a man who knows how to keep the faith. Pazzi still keeps coming round with new questions for the other profs, and he’s especially diligent in nagging Dr. Fell. He doesn’t know why, but something doesn’t smell right about that guy.
Inspector Pazzi notwithstanding, Lecter has only himself to blame for the trouble that’s about to befall him. You see, he’s been following the Evelda Drumgo shooting scandal just as closely as Mason Verger, and for similar reasons. When Lecter learns about the raw deal headed Starling’s way, he feels compelled to send her a letter of… well, I guess it’s what passes for sympathy in his twisted brain. The doctor goes to some lengths to make the letter untraceable by ordinary means, but Lecter being Lecter, he can’t resist planting one easy-to-miss, difficult-to-exploit clue just for his clever, dogged Clarisse. This time, it’s the custom-made hand lotion he wears while writing, folding, and sealing the letter, its formulation beyond the capabilities of all but a very few high-end European and Japanese perfumeries. Starling notices the scent and has it analyzed, then starts pestering the world’s finest vendors of cosmetics and toiletries for copies of their security camera tapes. In Florence, apparently, those tapes get handed over to the police as a matter of routine, and thus Inspector Pazzi just happens to spot the mysterious Dr. Fell in a video that one of his colleagues is copying for the American FBI.
Starling never said what she was looking for when she asked the Florentine cops to dub security cam footage for her, so Pazzi knows at once that this has to be something big. In the days to come, the inspector spends most of his free time staring at the FBI’s secure website, trying to decide whether the decade-old mugshot of Hannibal Lecter really looks as much like Dr. Fell as he thinks it does— and whether the $3 million private reward for information leading to Lecter’s arrest is worth the ethics violation he’d be courting by trying to collect it. That reward, as if you couldn’t have guessed, was put up by Mason Verger, who has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t really want the police to capture Lecter after all. What he wants is for them to lead him to Lecter, at which point a squad of his hired goons will swoop in and spirit the doctor away to a rendezvous with those man-eating pigs I mentioned in the opening paragraph.
Pazzi does indeed go for the money, thereby enabling Verger to get to Lecter first. The pickup goes wrong, though, in ways that get a lot of people killed— the inspector included. Lecter naturally goes even deeper into hiding after that, so Verger plays the best card he can think of to draw his nemesis out again. He arranges through Paul Krendler to have Starling rocket-fucked with a bogus evidence-withholding charge, on the theory that Lecter will move at once to avenge any injustice against his favorite cop. Krendler, for his part, is such a bone-deep misogynist that it never occurs to him to wonder about Verger’s reasons for framing Starling, or to suspect that he just volunteered himself as bait in the other man’s stakeout. Of course, it’s a foregone conclusion that all concerned have seriously underestimated both Lecter and Starling. The only question is how much it’s going to cost them.
It feels weird to say this about a movie based on as putrid a book as Hannibal, but the makers of this film really should have had more trust in the source material. Once it became obvious that “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” was Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster’s final answer, De Laurentiis ought to have chucked all the rewrites intended to placate them, and embraced Hannibal’s destiny to be a florid farrago. It is one anyway, after all, only now it seems kind of sheepish about it. If eliminating the vile slashfic conclusion, Margot Verger, and the Barney subplot couldn’t make the movie good, then those things might as well still be in here. Tell the truth, now. Wouldn’t you have kind of liked to see Frankie Faison and— I don’t know, how about Chyna?— together in a series of sexually charged power-lifting contests and the most uncomfortable shower scene since Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare? Wouldn’t you rather have watched Paul Krendler’s comeuppance descend all the way to the level of Eating Raoul by way of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 instead of sinking most of the way there before reversing itself in embarrassment? Wouldn’t you have preferred a version of this film that honestly didn’t know it was supposed to feel bad about inciting you to root for Hannibal Lecter? Doesn’t a fabulous disaster sound like more fun than an ill-considered goof?
One thing about Hannibal that took me completely by surprise was how little of its inadequacy can fairly be pinned on Julianne Moore. If anything, she’s the strong link in the chain here. Jodie Foster was an act that no one could credibly have followed, and Moore was sensible enough not to try to make the role her own. Instead, she plays the part practically as an impression of Foster’s version, with just a little extra nuance here and there to emphasize the ten years that have gone by in Starling’s life and career since the last time we saw her. Moore shows us a Clarisse Starling who is a little more at home with her authority as a police officer, but still and forever an outsider to the boy’s-club culture of law enforcement. A Starling who is used to dealing with clowns like the gung ho District cop on the Evelda Drumgo stakeout, but whose abiding faith in the essential honorability of her profession is such that she can still be blindsided by a conniver like Paul Krendler. I’d rather have had Foster, make no mistake, but there were many worse substitutes on the market than Moore turned out to be.
If Moore is the strong link, then it’s an irresolvable question who most deserves to be called out as the weak one, Ray Liotta, Gary Oldman, or Anthony Hopkins. I get why De Laurentiis didn’t just bring back Ron Vawter, who played Krendler during his brief appearance in The Silence of the Lambs. Krendler in that movie was just a guy in a dark suit doing his job, but here he’s a major villain— the kind you want a name actor to play. But Liotta is so smarmy in Hannibal that it’s impossible to take Krendler seriously. He’s like the caricature of a sexist pig that would exist within the mind of a caricature of a feminist. I think I might actually have believed in Liotta more as In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale’s North Jersey mafioso wizard. Oldman has the opposite problem. In a role that pleads for overacting on the scale of his deranged dirty cop in The Professional, Oldman barely bothers to give a recognizable performance at all. Mason Verger should be something out of a Tennessee Williams fever dream; instead, he’s a really nice Halloween mask propped up in a motorized wheelchair. Of course, it may well be that between Verger’s paralysis and that immovable makeup job, Oldman simply had nothing left to work with. And Hopkins— my God! To be fair, Hannibal Lecter was always a little much. The character worked in The Silence of the Lambs in part because he had the whole rest of the movie to hold him up, and in part because Hopkins himself never once acknowledged his absurdity. It also didn’t hurt that in 1991, Hopkins was still close enough to his physical prime to be credibly threatening on an animal level. In Hannibal, though, Hopkins lacks the support of a well-crafted setting. With the rest of the movie this silly, you start to notice things about Lecter that slipped by you before, like the fact that he speaks exactly like Catherine Hepburn, or the way his sense of style left “elegant” two or three border-crossings back to stake its claim defiantly in Fusty Fop country. Hopkins, meanwhile, has lost his grip on the core of unappeasable malice that underlay all of Lecter’s richly affected mannerisms, so that only campy archness remains. Throw in the effects of another ten years on the actor’s physique, and the overwhelming vibe becomes “gone-to-seed Fairfax County homosexual.” Not a bit scary, I’m afraid.
With this review, I join my fellow B-Masters in celebrating producer Dino De Laurentiis, the schlock-movie titan who married the slapdash, try-anything audacity of the Italian cinema industry to the megalomania of Hollywood. Click the link below to read my colleagues’ thoughts on the subject.