Director: Ridley Scott. Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Giancarlo Giannini, Zeljko Ivanek, Frankie Faison, Francesca Neri, Hazelle Goodman. Screenplay: David Mamet and Steven Zaillian (based on the novel by Thomas Harris).

Hannibal triumphs in two invaluable ways: it is the rare film adaptation that improves significantly on its source novel and the even rarer sequel that ventures gamely to be a completely different movie than its hit predecessor. One does not wish to state Hannibal's case too grandly, since improving on Thomas Harris' lurid novel would be hard not to do and being "different" from Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs is not the same as being better, or even as good. Indeed, Hannibal is not as good as the slightly overrated Lambs but remains, on its own terms, a qualified success. The filmmakers seem to have hit on one potent aspect of the insinuating Hannibal Lecter personality—his delectating appetite for the finest in life, across categories—and blown up that character trait into virtually its own movie. John Mathieson's strongly lit, wide-canvas cinematography is exquisitely beautiful; gorgeous food, music, architecture, and painting are regularly trotted out for our viewing pleasure; and the gritty, fearless Julianne Moore, replacing Jodie Foster as a sterner, angrier, more disappointed Clarice Starling, is both a beautiful bit of recasting and a beautiful vision unto herself.

Everything about Hannibal seems groomed to seduce us, which of course the title character managed to accomplish in only 25 minutes of screen time during his last screen appearance. Evil is perhaps not as harrowing in Ridley Scott's high-camp gorefest as in Demme's more earnest spine-chiller, but it is twice as enticing, which allows the film to shift thematically from the psychology of violence to the sheer sensual temptation that motivates crime: not just Hannibal's ruthless epicureanism, but also the petty extortion practiced by Giancarlo "Where Has He Been Hiding" Giannini in the role of a crafty (but not crafty enough) Italian police detective. The appeal of wrongdoing is even more forcefully evoked because the ostensible forces of justice are so patently corrupt and non-functional. After all, the reason Julianne Moore is as pissed here as she was in Magnolia is because her male FBI bosses have unfairly blamed her for a botched, high-profile drug raid—depicted in the film's opening sequence, with too much of the novel's pandering seaminess intact—which yet again ensures she will never climb as high in this organization as her talents deserve. Starling, once so resolute a protector, is now unsure what exactly she owes to the institution trying to capture and perhaps assassinate Hannibal. She is further unsettled, as we are, by odd intimations that Hannibal is in love with her, or at least has some secret, hard-to-deduce designs on her that may involve more than her mind.

If Starling's seething resentment gives the character an invigorating new shape in this sequel, positioned ten years after the events in Lambs, Hannibal is also distinguished by an age-related hankering to dare life a little more, to glory in some final gruesome conquests, before his final, inevitable apprehension, either by the police of one nation or another, or by the henchmen of Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a physically and psychically mutilated former patient of Lecter's whose only living mission is to enact his revenge. Next to the unexpected depth of Hopkins', Moore's, and Giannini's characterizations, Mason's convoluted and repulsive retribution is strangely the movie's least compelling thread. Once the fifth act gave itself over entirely to Grand Guignol violence and familiar, who's-gonna-die suspense, my engagement in Hannibal had largely tapered off. However, no one was more surprised than me that my interest had lasted as long as it did, and was rewarded with as much stylistic panache, acting finesse, and conceptual curveballs (what does it mean to imagine Hannibal as a sexual being?) as Ridley Scott and his team contribute. Hannibal is not quite what I'd call a "good" movie, but it could so easily have been worse in countless ways that I'm more than satisfied by the way it turned out. Grade: B

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