MGM // 2001 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // October 12th, 2011
Break the silence.
Ridley Scott's follow-up to Jonathan Demme's classic, Oscar-sweeping thriller The Silence of the Lambs didn't so much divide audiences when it was released in 2001 as it did repel them altogether. Though a whole lot of people saw it, there were few who had anything positive to say.
Has the film's reputation changed at all in the decade since it was first released? And can an HD upgrade have any impact on improving popular opinion towards Anthony Hopkins' sophomore outing as Dr. Lecter?
It's been a few years since Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, Meet Joe Black) escaped police custody and disappeared, leaving Special Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore of Boogie Nights, taking over the role originated by Jodie Foster) looking over her shoulder to see if he'll resurface. After she's involved in shootout that costs lives and embarrasses her professionally, there are rumors that Lecter has done just that: it turns out he has been living under an alias in Italy. Before long, forces being to close in on the Doctor to capture him and bring him back to the States, including an Italian detective (Giancarlo Giannini, Casino Royale) and a disfigured billionaire by the name of Mason Verger (an unrecognizable Gary Oldman of The Dark Knight), who shares a very special history with Lecter and shows a particular interest in being reunited with him.
Let me say right up front that I totally get why people don't like Hannibal: chiefly, because it's not Silence of the Lambs. Hell, it's not even Red Dragon, Brett Ratner's Manhunter remake (I know, I know, it was based on the Thomas Harris book) that's much closer in spirit to Silence of the Lambs. After waiting over a decade to continue the adventures of everyone's favorite gentleman cannibal, I can understand that most audience members were not expecting brain eating and pig farmers and the generally gory freakshow that is Hannibal.
And, yet, I've always felt that the movie undeservedly got a bad reputation right from the start. No, it's not Silence of the Lambs. It's not trying to be. That would be a mistake, and everyone involved is clearly smart enough to know that the movie would inevitably be compared to Silence and that the best approach would be to stake out new territory. That's certainly what they've done with Hannibal, which is a big-budget, handsomely produced grand guignol black comedy the likes of which have never been produced in the Hollywood system. Everyone went in expecting a smart, taut thriller and instead got a big sick joke. It's no wonder everyone was so pissed off.
The key to appreciating Hannibal is in the Gary Oldman character, who is so grotesque and so over the top that it's clear we're not meant to be taking this stuff seriously. Unbilled in the opening credits, Oldman disappears so completely underneath the extensive Mason Verger makeup that unless you read it, you would never know it was him. He's such an unusual villain -- soft-spoken, polite, trapped inside several prisons -- that he, in some ways, resembles Lecter from the first movie. But whereas Hopkins was somehow able to win our affections, Oldman-as-Verger never does; he never quite behaves monstrously, and yet we know that he is a monster. It lends Hannibal a kind of King Kong vs. Godzilla quality, as we watch two monsters face off (not physically, of course, because the monsters here are geniuses; it's more about how they can out-ugly all them sons of bitches). That he appears as the first thing in Hannibal means the movie can only get more ridiculous in an effort to top itself. I don't quite think it ever does, but you've got to appreciate a movie that tries.
Many of the problems with Hannibal can be attributed to Thomas Harris's novel, which took all the characters off into some completely crazy directions (and was widely disliked as a result). Screenwriters Steve Zaillan and David Mamet (what a pedigree this movie has) have actually fixed a number of the flaws and streamlined the story: gone is Verger's bodybuilder sister. Gone (mostly) is the totally bugnuts ending in which Lecter and Starling ride off into the sunset together. Gone is the lengthy backstory of the Pazzi family shame, though mention of it is made in scenes between Hopkins and Giannini. I still don't think the script ultimately works -- Scott's direction is what picks up the slack -- because it's messy and lacking in focus, but I think both writers made the best of a very, very difficult task. Aside from throwing out the novel altogether, no screenwriter was ever going to come up with a version of Hannibal that was palatable to mainstream audiences. There was simply too much crazy in Harris's book. Zaillian and Mamet deserve a lot of credit for striking a balance and delivering an honest attempt at a mainstream movie that still retains the crazy.
Not everything can be overcome by throwing talent at it, though. After Jodie Foster quickly passed on returning to her Oscar-winning role, Julianne Moore took over as Special Agent Clarice Starling. Moore is a fantastic actress -- one of the best currently working -- but she just doesn't have anything to do in the role. Starling is hardened and somber, and that's pretty much it; critics who attacked Moore's take on the role failed to acknowledge that she barely had a role to play. One wonders if the sequel wouldn't have been better served by leaving Starling out altogether (though one needn't wonder for long; it's called Red Dragon), but I suspect that fans of Silence of the Lambs were looking for the follow-up to once again focus on the very peculiar relationship between Starling and Lecter. With the exception of the final few minutes, there isn't much of that in the movie. And, no matter what, at its source Hannibal diminishes some of the title character's appeal. What made him great in Silence of the Lambs was that he was brilliant and ferocious, but locked in a cell -- he could only inflict damage with his mind and his words. Allowing him to run freely around Europe somehow makes him less scary and more like every other slasher or serial killer we've seen in the movies before. That's not to say Hopkins doesn't appear to have a ton of fun in the role, and there's a looseness to the character that feels new. He's no longer all steely intensity, and it's good to see other sides of such an iconic villain (to be fair, though, Hannibal is hardly the villain of Hannibal). Plus, we get a deeper look into his very specific moral and ethical code. The results, like the movie itself, are funny and sick.
Because the Special Edition DVD featured such a strong, clean transfer (I popped it in the other night and would have sworn it was in HD), this Blu-ray release of Hannibal barely represents an upgrade in picture quality. The 1080p, MPEG-2 encoded image looks good; it's appropriately drab and detailed, with only slight edge enhancement visible from time to time. Otherwise, there's no apparent digital tinkering or source flaws to distract from the movie. The lossless 5.1 audio track is equally adequate, offering clear dialogue and appropriate action dynamics when necessary (such as a shootout near the start of the film) while also managing to showcase the movie's powerful score by Hans Zimmer. It's not the best the format has to offer, but it gets the job done.
Now for the bad (worse?) news. MGM hasn't included any bonus features on the Hannibal Blu-ray. For those of you who remember the movie's excellent DVD release, this is a huge disappointment; not only did the movie come with an informative and interesting commentary from director Ridley Scott (one of the best when it comes to director commentaries), but also included an entire second disc of supplemental material such as a feature-length "making of" documentary, a number of deleted scenes and more. NONE of that has been ported over to the HD release, leaving it completely bare bones. Hannibal was a phenomenal DVD that's been turned into a bummer of a Blu-ray.
Revisiting Hannibal after a number of years, the movie is both better and worse than I remembered -- assuming such a thing is possible. I had always been a champion of what it does well and felt it was misunderstood, and those feelings are still there. However, I had been so intent on defending it, I wasn't entirely able to see the movie's flaws, of which there are many. Still, it's interesting and ambitious and there's a lot to like, and just that is more than the movie typically gets credit for. Unfortunately, MGM has botched the Blu-ray release by dumping all of the extras. This is a case where the original DVD release was so good the first time that the HD upgrade just isn't worth it.
Hold onto the DVD.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R