Break out the fava beans and a nice Chianti. It's time to celebrate the cinematic return, after ten years, of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, again played with irrepressibly twisted elegance by Anthony Hopkins. Among serial killers who happen to be cannibals, Hannibal is the Iron Chef. In this movie, he whips up a gourmet feast that involves the sauteing of shallots, minced caper berries and delicate slices of some guy's prefrontal lobe. Whether you puke or savor the campy fun, it's a kick to hear Hannibal cluck "goody-goody" when he's flushed out of hiding by FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Jodie Foster, is wow-worthy). And, if you must know, Hannibal and Clarice share a kiss, a real lip smacker. About where the kiss leads, my lambs are silent. As author Thomas Harris says in the memorable last line of Hannibal the book: "We can only learn so much and live."
There are three things you can safely know before seeing Hannibal the movie:
1) It's better than the 1999 Harris novel that became a best seller despite an ending that gave literary critics indigestion.
2) It's not better than "The Silence of the Lambs," the 1991 film that preceded it, because that Oscar-winning thriller elevated grisly material to something artful and resonant.
3) It's unmissable, flaws and all, because riveting suspense spiced with diabolical laughs and garnished with a sprig of kinky romance add up to the tastiest dish around.
Got that? Now stop reading this review until you see the movie. . . .
So, you're back, and we can talk without having to attach spoiler warnings to every plot point. What we have here is a love story. "Hannibal" opens just in time for Valentine's Day, but then so did "The Silence of the Lambs." Even back then, we could see that Hannibal, the nut-job shrink with an urge to eat his patients, and Clarice, the agent trainee with a daddy complex, were developing feelings for each other that penetrated prison bars and bulletproof glass. Still, it took guts for Harris, in writing his third novel featuring Hannibal — following "Red Dragon" (filmed by Michael Mann in 1986 as "Manhunter") and "The Silence of the Lambs" — to smack us right in the face with this kissy-poo union of "Beauty and the Beast." Suddenly, Hannibal was a Romeo capable of sweeping Clarice off to Buenos Aires for a life of sex, opera and fine dining on human flesh. Critics used phrases like "morally reprehensible slop" to describe the book, and they weren't alone. Jonathan Demme, who won an Oscar for directing "Lambs," passed on directing "Hannibal." Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for writing the "Lambs" script, was another scratch. Jodie Foster, who won an Oscar for playing Clarice, also wanted out — although the refusal of producer Dino De Laurentiis to meet her reported demand for $20 million and fifteen percent of the gross may have factored in. That leaves the Oscar-winning Hopkins, raking in $11 million and a share of the profits, to keep the Hannibal spirit alive.
The Welsh actor does the job admirably with the help of another haute cuisine team, including two-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore ("End of the Affair, Boogie Nights"), who signed on as Clarice for a $3 million payday, and Ridley Scott, fresh from his Gladiator" smash, to direct. Scott, who was Oscar nominated as Best Director for 1991's "Thelma and Louise and lost to Demme for "Lambs," didn't like the ending, either. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, an Oscar winner for "Schindler's List," came in to revise a script by David Mamet until it pleased all parties — meaning the love story needed to be done by suggestion instead of by assault with a blunt tool.
Tall order, deftly delivered. "Hannibal" manages the neat trick of being its own movie even when the script flies off in more directions than it can comfortably handle. While Demme intensified the drama through searching close-ups, Scott — with the sharp assistance of "Gladiator" cinematographer John Mathieson — gives the film a sweeping, epic scope. In the decade since we last saw Hannibal — he was having an old friend for dinner — the fiend has been curating a museum in Florence as Dr. Fell. The scenes in Italy have a sinister allure that is heightened when Inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Gianni) comes sniffing around. Pazzi has a babe wife, Allegra (Francesca Neri), who likes nice things that a cop's salary can't buy.
That leads Pazzi to Mason Verger (an uncredited Gary Oldman), a vengeful American billionaire and Hannibal's only surviving victim, who will pay highly for any info on his nemesis. In flashback, we see the doctor virtually hypnotize Mason, a known pedophile, into slicing off his own face. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," cracks Mason, who plans to kidnap Hannibal and keep him alive on an IV drip while wild boars devour him from the toes up. It's a meaty role, and Oldman, nearly unrecognizable in facial makeup that looks like an eye drowning in a sea of mucus, chews it like a hungry hog.
To contrast the shadows of Florence, Scott catches us up on Clarice in broad daylight, during a brilliantly staged FBI drug raid at a fish market. Clarice blasts away as bodies fall, including a badass mother (Hazelle Goodman) who straps her baby to her chest while she fires at Clarice. Justice Department boss Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta in full creep mode) uses the baby incident to get Clarice suspended. Paul is on Mason's payroll, and Mason knows that Clarice in trouble will bring Hannibal to her side.
Credit Scott for transforming narrative tricks, which are used to unite Hannibal and Clarice, into gripping filmmaking. Gone is the novel's tabloid psychology about the roots of Hannibal's psychosis — cannibals ate my sister! Scott rightly trusts the actors. Hopkins is perverse perfection, blending mirth and malice with cunning skill. And Moore, in the toughest role, emerges triumphant. Like Foster, she brings out the frightened child in this female warrior. But Moore's Clarice shows newfound maturity and strength. Clarice is no longer the West Virginia rube who Hannibal dismissed as "poor white trash." In the contours of Moore's keenly focused and sexually charged performance, Clarice is ready for any predator.
No wonder the movie stops short of the book's surreal eroticism. Only David Lynch in his "Blue Velvet" period ("He put his disease in me") could have nailed it. Scott travels a more conventional path. He needs to make sure that your hair will be fried, your bones will be chilled and your nerves will be frazzled. But in finding the mordant wit in two people who want to destroy and rescue each other, Scott offers a sly parody of relationships — think "When Hannibal Met Sally." As our domesticated cannibal lays out just the right dress and shoes for Clarice to wear at dinner, we watch their obsessions fight to a Freudian finish. You can laugh at Hannibal and Clarice, but Hopkins and Moore keep it too real to laugh them off. Once you push past the stabbings, disembowelments and hog-wild assaults, what's being served here is a freaky date movie for audiences who rooted for King Kong to get the girl. Bon appetit.