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HANNIBAL: SPECIAL EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri
Director:  Ridley Scott
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  131 Minutes
Release Date:  August 21, 2001

“Tell me, Clarice, would you ever say to me, ‘Stop…if you loved me, you would stop’?”
“Not in a thousand years.”
“That’s my girl.”

Film **1/2

When you get down to it, there really is no following The Silence of the Lambs…maybe as a book, but never as a film.  The original squirmed its way down into our subconscious minds the way very few movies even had the courage to attempt.  It was spearheaded by two brilliant, Oscar winning performances, Oscar winning direction, and a chilling Oscar winning screenplay.  Each of these elements so perfectly served the others that it was like an impeccable house of cards…one misplacement could have spoiled it all.  But it was surefooted, confident, and relentless.  It did not misstep.

Many fans clamored for a sequel because they loved the characters of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, even though we probably all realized in our hearts that it could never replicate the experience of seeing Silence for the first time.  When author Thomas Harris penned Hannibal, a return to the screen seemed extremely likely, especially when word got out that the inimitable Anthony Hopkins was eager to once again sink his teeth (pun intended) into the role he made famous. 

But the ground was shaky from the start.  Jodie Foster declined a large salary to reprise her role as Clarice, publicly stating that she didn’t approve of how the character was handled in the sequel.  Director Jonathan Demme, whose confrontational style of cinema made Silence strip down the so-called “fourth wall” to unnerve us further, also passed on the opportunity to return.

If Hannibal was to be made, it would have to come about with a new leading lady and a new director.  The part of Clarice went to the amazing Julianne Moore, who proved herself more than capable of stepping into the shoes of a firmly established character.  It took less than a minute of screen time for audiences to accept that Moore was Starling, and go on from there.  For a director, the studio was lucky and smart to acquire Ridley Scott, fresh off his work on what would become the Best Picture Oscar winner, Gladiator. 

But the irreplaceable component was Anthony Hopkins.  Though Hannibal Lecter had been played by another actor, Bryan Cox, in a previous film, the mad psychiatrist could never be portrayed by anyone else after Hopkins.  His stylistic mix of quiet, edgy madness, charm, manners, and undeniable intellect made Hannibal into a screen presence audiences loved and feared in equal measures.  They recoiled from him, yet they always wanted more of him.

Hannibal starts in story as it does in reality, a decade after the events in Silence.  Lecter is still at large, but has lived a quiet life out of the spotlight for ten years…so much so, that he was even dropped from the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.  Starling has become a respected agent, but the public black eyes given to the Bureau in recent years have affected even her, as she finds herself wrongfully blamed for a sting operation that goes terribly awry.

With her career in jeopardy, but with her usual defiance and pluck firmly intact, she accepts suspension, but at the same time, becomes aware of the possible re-emergence of her old nemesis.  One of Lecter’s victims, Mason Verger (the only one who lived to tell the tale), has gotten in touch with the doctor’s old caretaker, Barney (Faison).  There is a large reward on Lecter’s head, naturally, but Verger is only out for personal revenge (for a past encounter almost too gruesome to describe…you’ll have to see it for yourself).

Lecter had been living a quiet, anonymous life in Italy, but the presence of reward seekers on his trail brings him out of his retirement.  He and Clarice will meet again…and this time, without the protective glass in between.

The film works on a certain level, but fails at the same time because it doesn’t reach beyond that level.  Scott’s approach to the material is more literal and less cerebral.  Silence could spook us just with the idea of what Lecter did to a nurse while in custody; Scott’s only means of competing is to show that moment as footage from an old surveillance camera.  It doesn’t scare; it merely startles, and the point is, of course, that we never needed to see it at all.

The original film played on our deepest fears long and torturously before ever shedding blood for us.  Hannibal rarely exists any higher than shock value.  There are effectively gruesome scenes, to be sure, but it’s all appetizer and no main course.  We leave the picture still feeling hungry.  That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that the climax didn’t disturb me more deeply than just about any other horror film I can recollect.  It had chutzpah, panache, and impact…it’s just too bad that what came before it wasn’t more worthy.

If Hannibal falls short as a sequel, does it at least succeed as a film in its own right?  Possibly.  If you can shake the cultural infusion Silence has been for the last decade, you have in Hannibal a stylish thriller with a great look, terrific characters, and a sense of fearlessness in its approach to repulsive subject matter.  The problem is, very few of us have lived in enough of a vacuum to be able to appreciate it without comparing it to its far-better predecessor.

Hannibal is no wash, but neither does it completely satisfy.  The reversion from psychological horror to a more literal one isn’t worthy of the Lecter legacy.  He was far too great a villain to be reduced to a mere quip-quoting slasher.

Video ****

The look of Hannibal is almost a character in and of itself, and MGM’s anamorphic transfer has captured it flawlessly.  From the brightly lit exteriors to the coarser, more extreme colors and shadings of various interiors, this DVD renders all images with cleanness and integrity…no undue grain, shimmer, bleeding or softness mar the look of the film.  Detail is very good throughout.  Even scenes that are purposely manipulated for an unnatural look are presented with clarity and faithfulness to the vision.  High marks!

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack (DD or DTS) is quite good, with plenty of musical cues, ambient effects and action for the surrounds.  Crossovers are smooth in all directions, with good balance and strong dynamic range.  The .1 signal carries some of the lower, more potent musical moments with clarity and integrity.  All in all, a very good listen.

Features ****

Extras galore!  For starters, there are over 35 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, with or without Scott’s running commentary, including the now-famous unused ending (three endings were considered, he explains, but only two were filmed).  Scott also provides a full commentary for the film itself…his speaking style is a little reserved at times, with occasional pauses, but overall, his track is enlightening and informative.  There are 5 featurettes that include rare footage and interview, three multi-angle extras (one on storyboards, one on the breakdown of the film’s first action sequence, one on the opening titles), plus an ad gallery with photos, posters, trailers and TV spots.  An excellent features package!

Summary:

Ironically, if Hannibal were only a more satisfying film, MGM’s DVD release might be considered the disc of the year.  With an impressive audio and video transfer and a wonderful plethora of extras, this is probably one no DVD lover will regret picking up, even if it only inspires them to go back and watch The Silence of the Lambs as an encore.