Rated R - Running Time: 2:15 - Released 2/9/01

Jonathan Demme's 1991 classic thriller The Silence Of The Lambs is no doubt one of the most famous films of its genre; it features career-changing performances for both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, and swept the Oscars in all the "major" categories. It followed Michael Mann's less well-known but critically acclaimed 1986 film Manhunter, which introduced the character of cannibalistic genius/serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by Brian Cox) and the writing style of Thomas Harris, who wrote the novels on which all three films are based.

Producing a sequel to such monumental films would be a daunting task even if one were able to reassemble Lambs's entire creative team intact. Hannibal, directed by Ridley Scott, is perhaps the best that could be done lacking Foster, but that isn't saying much. The presence of Hopkins, reprising his role as fava-bean-and-Chianti connoisseur Dr. Lecter, helps, but his performance is not up to the level of Lambs (though it's still satisfyingly unsettling to hear him say "Clarice" in that way he does), and while Scott's direction and the eye-pleasing cinema of John Mathieson (who worked with Scott on last year's Gladiator) give the film an impressive look, it struggles greatly to live up to the legacy of its predecessor.

The most obvious weakness, of course, is Julianne Moore as FBI agent Clarice Starling, the role previously held by Foster. Her performance (especially her relationship with Hopkins) is nowhere near the intensity of the previous pairing; Moore is a favorite performer of mine, but she can't possibly hope to achieve the chemistry Foster shared with Hopkins — and they both seem acutely aware of that. Furthermore, writer Harris has replaced Lambs's secondary villain, played creepily by Ted Levine, with a character so outlandishly goofy he's almost comical. I don't know if it was just Gary Oldman's over-the-top performance or his ill-fitting prosthetic disfigured face makeup, but his portrayal of wheelchair-bound Mason Verger, one of Lecter's former victims who wants revenge, inspires more chuckles than horror.

It's 10 years after Agent Starling's famous connection with the now-escaped Lecter helped her solve a major case and made her a name in the agency, but lately she has fallen out of favor, having participated in a botched sting operation resulting in a fatal shootout. Meanwhile, Lecter is still at large. Just as Clarice is about to be put on probation, her old friend decides to "come out of retirement," appearing in Florence, Italy, and giving her a call to see if she's still interested. She contacts the Italian authorities, but FBI agent Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) is already on Lecter's trail, mainly for Verger's $3 million reward. While Clarice tries to convince him how dangerous Lecter is, her new sexist boss, corrupt Justice Dept. agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), is working in cahoots with the vengeful, diabolically wacky Verger, who wants Lecter for himself so that he may repay him for the plastic surgery.

As if painfully aware of the weaknesses in his production, director Scott has used his considerable talent to dress up this film into an artful, visually impressive affair, but except for the startlingly macabre and much publicized shock scene near the end, the movie is dull and lifeless, with pretty scenery and scary music creating a kind of artificial tension that lacks the visceral-yet-cerebral quality of the previous Lecter flicks.

Moore is an excellent actress, but this just isn't her role. Hopkins seems to know he's in a second-rate re-hash of one of his most memorable triumphs; until the final reel, he's just putting in time. And Oldman — well, his portrayal is so cartooney, I expected him to jump out of the wheelchair and say, "Ssssssmokin!" ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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