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He's Baaack! Dr. Hannibal Lecter returns for a second helping of murder, mayhem and Clarice Starling.

Extreme Hannibalism

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Ten years and one week after we last saw Hannibal Lecter sauntering off to have his doctor for dinner, literally, he's back on the big screen. So is his appetite for cat-and-mouse games with those who would imprison him. Once again portrayed by Anthony Hopkins with an exquisite sense of the macabre, Hannibal the Cannibal remains one of the most fascinating villains on screen. Despite Hopkins terrific performance, "Hannibal" lacks some of the elements that made its predecessor, "Silence of the Lambs," so powerful. For one thing, director Ridley Scott's direction — though lavishly impressionistic — doesn't lend itself to the necessary sustained creepiness the source material demands. Nor does Scott seem as interested in the intricate interplay of characters as "Lambs" director Jonathan Demme. Scott also seems to be stuck in some sort of Picasso-inspired "blue period," washing most of his scenes in cool blues, more than a few with the eerie contrails of cigarette smoke. Although "Hannibal" screenwriters, first David Mamet then Steve Zaillian, remain quite faithful to author Thomas Harris' novel of the same name, they do have a few surprise twists of their own. Not the least of which is what they do with the ending. Yes, they end it in a manner that actually improved the story for me. A huge fan of Harris' novels "Red Dragon" (which became the movie "Manhunter") and "Lambs," I admit I hated the novel "Hannibal," mostly because of its damnable final scene. "Hannibal" picks up with FBI agent Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore) having earned the dubious distinction of being the female agent with the most recorded kills. In the cop-showlike opening sequence, Starling shoots in self-defense, but it's all caught on tape for the 6 o'clock news. Having made the bureau look bad, she's shuffled to the sidelines by her superior (Ray Liotta), who just happens to harbor a grudge over Clarice's success. But Liotta's Justice Department hotshot is not the only one who can't quite forget Clarice's first case. Mason Verger is also obsessed, though on a more personal note. This endlessly wealthy wastrel happens to be the sole survivor of a Lecter attack. Confined to a wheelchair, this disfigured and disturbed young man has but one goal in life: to kidnap Lecter and subject him to a hideous, torturous death. To this end, Verger (an uncredited Gary Oldman, apparently) posts a $3 million reward. Notice of the reward makes its way to Florence, Italy, where disgraced police inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) makes the connection between Lecter and the soft-spoken curator at a museum. But never one to play the mouse for long, Lecter turns the tables on his pursuer before returning stateside. And stateside means Clarice. Clearly, both she and Lecter have an unhealthy obsession with one another, which makes the story — no matter how wildly imaginative or grotesque it becomes — believable. But as Lecter begins circling Clarice in his bizarre courtly ways, Verger's goon captures him. Now, Clarice has moral and ethical choices to make. Should she intervene in the fate of a demon? Those who know only a little about Harris' novel "Hannibal," most likely know about the infamous dinner scene. Weird on paper, let me just say it is even weirder played out on the big screen. Some will be grossed out, others will find the scene laughable. Adding to the problem, Scott's sense of restraint flies out the window here, resulting in an over-the-top scene that will honestly become the cool reason to catch this movie. As Starling, Moore acquits herself well. Though her performance is not quite as psychologically muscular as the one delivered by Jodie Foster's Clarice in "Lambs," it is solid. And although she gets plenty of screen time, she is not the central character here. Named for him, the movie is all about Hannibal. And Hopkins commands every scene with an intensity and unerring eye for the telling mannerism that makes Hannibal feel real. His Hannibal never once slips out of his charming psychopath's skin. Without Hopkins in the title role, "Hannibal" would be an indifferently plotted police procedural, boasting opulent locales and Grand Guignol grotesquerie to satisfy today's slasher-reared moviegoers.

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