Hannibal cannibalizes Silence-badly

In 1991’s “Silence,” film audiences met the sociopathic, yet oddly sympathetic, genius Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a character who first appeared in a series of novels by Thomas Harris.

After snapping up the rights to Harris’ latest book, MGM convinced Anthony Hopkins to reprise the title role (and who wouldn’t want to be a brilliant sociopath who steals the show?), Jodie Foster declined a repeat portrayal of FBI agent Clarice Starling after reading the script. This was one of her smarter Hollywood maneuvers; even though “Hannibal” grossed almost $60 million over its opening weekend, the film itself is a disaster.

In the 10 years since her fateful interviews with Hannibal, Clarice Starling has acquired a new face (Julianne Moore) and full-fledged action heroine status. In the film’s opening scene, apparently having given up her psychological aspirations from “Lambs,” she goes ballistic in a botched drug raid where she rivals Arnold Schwarzenegger for body count.

After the shootout, she endures grossly unfair heat from her superiors, who are by turns absurdly corrupt, resentful of her rural origins and desperate to sneak into her pants.

Eager for redemption, Clarice jumps on a lead to the whereabouts of Hannibal Lecter, who disappeared without a trace a decade earlier. Somewhat unbelievably, Hannibal is living a relaxing life as the curator of a museum in Florence.

After this initial setup, the film takes a real nosedive, as credibility goes out the window. We are buried under an avalanche of every Hollywood suspense cliche in the book: the crooked cop, the hideous eccentric billionaire who controls everything and overweight Italian mobsters. Coincidences pile up on one another, straining the credulity of even the most forgiving audience.  The film belabors the mystique around Hannibal, which makes it all the more unrealistic when bungling sidekicks apprehend him.

“Hannibal” sports an impressive cast, but none succeed in carrying the film. Julianne Moore has the unenviable task of filling Foster’s shoes, which she actually manages to pull off. Gary Oldman, for some reason unbilled, is entertaining as usual as the disfigured Mason Verger. However, his character feels like something out of a comic book, and we cannot take him seriously. Ray Liotta is fairly convincing in his desperation to elevate Starling’s evil boss into an actual role, but even he falls flat.

Sadly, the incredible dynamic between Starling and Lecter that made them so memorable in “Lambs” is entirely absent.  In fact, they do not meet until the final third of the movie. Instead, “Hannibal” relies on cryptic letters and repetitive voiceovers to flesh out their relationship, a strategy which proves sorely lacking

While I hesitate to impugn Hopkins, the new Lecter is a bit too much campy caricature for my taste. Hopkins obviously has fun with the role; the “Hannibal” of this film is a Dante-quoting gourmet chef with a straight-razor who says “ta-ta” and “okey-dokey.” Gone is the creepy madman who could crawl inside anybody’s head. There isn’t a single moment reminiscent of the abject terror felt by audiences around the world at the end of “Lambs.”

To its credit, “Hannibal” had a packed theater laughing at Lecter’s “antics,” bringing cannibalism to the level of quirky humor. (Had anyone been laughing through “Lambs,” they would have found themselves comfortably in a straitjacket within 24 hours.)

Unfortunately, the film fails as a thriller because it induces neither fear nor suspense. Director Ridley Scott instead substitutes excessive gore, and what he ends up with is essentially a second-rate slasher flick. Of course, it’s a second-rate slasher flick that will make millions because it is the sequel to one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made.