[Screen It]

(2001) (Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: An FBI agent tries to find a notorious serial killer she interviewed ten years earlier who's still on the loose and once again up to his homicidal ways.
It's been ten years since FBI agent Clarice Starling (JULIANNE MOORE) interviewed convicted serial killer and admitted cannibal Hannibal Lecter (ANTHONY HOPKINS) while searching for another killer. After assuming responsibility for a botched drug bust that resulted in her shooting the suspect who was holding a baby, Clarice is on the hot seat. About to be punished by Justice Dept. official Paul Krendler (RAY LIOTTA), she gets a reprieve when Mason Verger (GARY OLDMAN), a wealthy and influential recluse, asks that she be put back on the Lecter case and that the killer, who's been on the lam for the past decade, be reinstated on the FBI's ten most wanted list.

It seems that Verger was Lecter's only victim to have survived, but with a terribly scarred face and a life sentence in a wheelchair. Verger apparently has some new evidence about Lecter, so Clarice goes to interview him, and then does the same with Barney (FRANKIE R. FAISON), a former guard who knew Lecter for many years and is in possession of many audiotapes of the killer's thoughts.

Meanwhile in Florence, Italy, Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (GIANCARLO GIANNINI) is investigating the mysterious disappearance of a curator and thus goes to question the man's potential replacement, Dr. Fell, who turns out to be none other than Hannibal Lecter.

Once Pazzi realizes who Fell really is, he sets out to collect evidence to prove that and collect a handsome reward, all while Clarice tries to pinpoint the origin of a letter she received from Hannibal that stated it was time for him to get back into the limelight. From that point on, and as Verger decides to use Clarice to lure in Lecter so that he can get his revenge on him, the various involved parties try to find the killer who always seems to be one step ahead of their plans and thinking.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Unlike most moviegoers, critics have never been fans of most sequels. That's because while the average moviegoer often wants to see more of a story and characters they enjoyed watching in the past, most critics realize that "sequelitis" is a cinematic malady that, left unchecked, could prove to be the bane of moviegoing. Their argument is that such films are rarely as good as their predecessors, often tarnish the memory of them, and are usually rushed into production to make a quick buck as they'll presumably be guaranteed moneymakers due to the built-in audience.

There are exceptions to the rule, where films were designed to have follow-ups (such as the "Star Wars" pictures), are as good or improved upon the original ("Godfather II") and/or stemmed from artistic rather than purely economic reasons (some of the "Star Trek" films).

Of course, while some sequels are forced and/or creatively crafted out of prior films that seemed immune to another chapter (such as the Ripley character being cloned in "Alien 4" to overcome the death that occurred in the third installment of that series), other films purposefully leave the door wide open for a sequel (be it for artistic or future commercial reasons should the first film be a success).

"The Silence of the Lambs" was one of those latter films, although it was a sequel of sorts itself to "Manhunter," Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel, "Red Dragon," where the now famous cannibalistic serial killer character first appeared.

Released in 1991 to critical and public acclaim (it garnered five Oscar wins out of seven nominations and grossed more than $250 million worldwide), the film was a masterpiece of psychological horror - thanks in part to tremendous performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, as well as Ted Tally's script and Jonathan Demme's taut direction - and became the standard against which all future serial killer flicks would be measured.

Now ten years later - almost to the day - along comes the inevitable but seemingly tardy sequel, "Hannibal." Named after the psychopath from the earlier film - and not the Carthaginian general and his elephant parade across the Alps - the film stems from both its predecessor and Harris' follow-up and somewhat poorly received novel of the same name. As such, one must naturally wonder whether those involved in bringing it to the big screen set out to make a quick buck off the legend of the first (despite that passage of a decade) or were hoping to take the story and its characters further along in a logical, credible and artistic fashion.

For everyone involved, the latter is fortunately the answer, but while I can't attest about how faithful it is to the novel from which it's based, I can say that it's certainly not as good as its predecessor. That said, it's not horrible by any means, unless you're one easy to become queasy from onscreen gore and related macabre material, a point that will be discussed in a moment.

The reasons for the unfavorable comparison are numerous. Beyond the fact that Oscar winners Demme, Tally and, more importantly, Foster, didn't return, the novelty factor that worked so well for the original is obviously absent with this effort. The first film caught most everyone off guard for a variety of reasons --- including both the intelligent and well-written script as well as the overall high caliber production values in a genre not normally associated with either.

"Lambs" also had a palatable and almost claustrophobic aura to it, thanks no doubt to the various scenes that took place not only in Lecter's cell and Buffalo Bill's cluttered hideout and well, but also in the various characters' minds. It certainly had what's arguably the best chemistry and pairing of antagonistic yet respectful characters to grace the screen in years. Audiences delighted in watching Hopkins and Fosters' characters trying to get under the other's skin - no cannibalistic/serial killer pun intended - in a dangerous but riveting cat and mouse game of mental battle. Their exchanges - both verbal and physical - were without comparison.

Unfortunately and inevitably, that's the standard to which this film must compare and it simply can't stand up to the test. Although undeniably an above average and certainly competently made film, this sequel is lacking in most of what made the original so good. While one must be grateful that director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator," "Thelma and Louise") and writer Steven Zaillian ("A Civil Action," "Schindler's List") - who took over the scripting reins from David Mamet ("State and Main," "The Edge") - didn't simply retread the original but instead tried to make this story a logical progression from what earlier occurred, several more things prevent it from being as good.

Whereas the first film's dual plot worked incredibly well (the Hannibal/Clarice scenes and those related to her finding and stopping Buffalo Bill), this film's attempt at running several interrelated stories isn't quite as successful. The whole bit about a former victim - played by an uncredited and completely unrecognizable Gary Oldman ("The Contender," "Lost in Space") - who's trying to get revenge on Lecter is somewhat effective, at least until we get wind of the increasingly preposterously but thematically suited method of retaliation he's hatched.

A subplot dealing with an Italian cop - convincingly played by Giancarlo Giannini ("Mimic," "Seven Beauties") - who's hoping to nab Lecter for a lucrative reward generates a few tense scenes. Yet, it ultimately fizzles, thus leaving just the expected plotline of Clarice trying to find her "old friend" while also dealing with a one-dimensional jerk of a supervisor embodied by Ray Liotta ("Cop Land," "Turbulence"). While there are a few fun moments to be had in regards to the return of the cat and mouse game, and director Scott keeps things interesting from a visual standpoint (even if some purposefully disorienting flashbacks look more like the work of a hack than a pro), the film clearly misses the fun and scary psychological repartee between the two main characters.

Nevertheless, Anthony Hopkins ("Meet Joe Black," "The Mask of Zorro"), in reprising his role from the original, is still a blast to watch, and few can match his ability in creating a compelling, terrifying and yet intelligently charming character. Although the thought and presence of him as a free creature isn't quite as creepy and frightening as when he was confined in the first film, Hopkins still manages to make the character nothing short of fascinating and completely mesmerizing to behold.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said about his nemesis. Replacing Jodi Foster in the role she declined to play once again, Julianne Moore ("An Ideal Husband," "Boogie Nights") delivers a solid performance as Starling, but is undermined by both the lack of character depth and interesting plot developments that Foster had to work with.

As such, she comes off as the standard cop/detective/heroine working the serial murder case as is found in most such films, but without as much screen time. It's clearly Lecter's story this time around, and while Moore's performance certainly isn't bad or even mediocre by any means, the character simply isn't as interesting or complex as the first time around.

Perhaps sensing such comparative deficiencies, Scott and company have committed the cardinal sin of making a sequel that resorts to attempting to one-up what the original had to offer. Whereas the first film had a few gross scenes, it far more often delivered its chills and thrills via psychological rather than visceral means.

Here, the reverse is true, and for those who are easily grossed out, this film has some moments - and one incredibly graphic and disturbing scene in particular - that will likely turn many a viewer's stomach. While they're effective in doing just that and actually make sense considering the subject matter and the profession/hobby and/or culinary tastes of the central character, it's somewhat of a cheap and sensationalistic tactic of getting the viewer to wince and cringe into their seats.

In a perfect world, this film could exist on its own and not be compared to the Best Picture winner of 1991, but alas, that's not the case. Good and clearly benefiting from Hopkins' return to the title role, but certainly not the masterpiece that was and still is "The Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal" is an okay sequel that clearly pales in comparison to and will forever reside in the shadow of its far superior predecessor, but is nevertheless better than many other entries in the genre. As such, the film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 5, 2001 / Posted February 9, 2001

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