The makers of "Hannibal" really, really want you to remember that their film is a sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs." Twice in this inconsequential follow-up, FBI agent Clarice Starling reviews audio tapes of her conversations with flesh-eating serial killer Hannibal Lecter, replaying the suspenseful exchanges that made "Silence" an Oscar winner.
Why is this necessary? Because Jodie Foster is absent under Starling's headphones, now worn by the fumbling Julianne Moore. Moore's voice has been spliced into those verbal jousts in hopes that our memories will fog, that we'll swallow the change -- and that we'll forget this is The Film No One Wanted to Do.
Well, almost no one: The essential Anthony Hopkins is back as the title ghoul. But "Silence" director Jonathan Demme and writer Ted Tally have followed Foster onto the MIA list, wisely avoiding association with a sequel that's not a patch on their work. Instead, "Hannibal" is oddly faithful to the disappointing novel that was its impetus. And its few deviations from author Thomas Harris' flawed template are simply crass.
At least Harris' dialogue crackled with morbid wit. His appropriated words are the highlights of the clunky "Hannibal" screenplay (completed by "Schindler's List" scribe Steven Zaillian after a first draft by David Mamet). At the story's outset, Starling takes part in a drug raid that goes fatally wrong, leaving her to take the heat from her conniving, cowardly superiors. Her faith in the bureau is shattered.
"It changes everything," Starling complains. "It changes me." This is not character development. This is a road map.
As Starling's career spirals downward, the fugitive Lecter resurfaces. Having escaped custody at the end of "Silence," he's risen to a position of semi-prominence in Florence, Italy. (How a member of the Ten Most Wanted List can sashay undetected across the globe is poorly explained in the novel; here, it's virtually ignored.)
Lecter's cover is pierced by two enemies. One is Inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), a corrupt Florence cop. The other is Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a wealthy lunatic who is Lecter's sole surviving victim. Verger has a brutal revenge planned for the doctor, and all his trap lacks is the right bait. Hello, Starling.
Clarice is vital to Verger's scheme, but she's not as important to the film, which largely relegates its ostensible heroine to reactive behavior: poring through computer records, tracing phone calls and defending her reputation in an awful, now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't Southern drawl. On the rare occasions when does she see action, Moore is a lumbering presence. No competition for Foster, she can't even get through a simple jogging scene without looking taxed.
Denied genuine interplay between Starling and Lecter -- the only logical reason for a Silence sequel -- we instead dwell on Oldman's Verger. He's a splendid monster, handily outdistancing Hopkins' credible but familiar carnivore shtick. A close call with Lecter has put Verger in a wheelchair, his face stripped of flesh; consonants stick on his lipless mouth. With white hair rising from his head in tufts, Verger is the perfect parody of a feeble millionaire who can write every check his body can't cash. He appears ready to marry Anna Nicole Smith at a moment's notice.
"Hannibal's" other obvious virtue is Scott's fluid visual style, employed to particularly good effect during the Italian interlude. But there's nothing substantial to hold onto as the story stumbles toward a climax that's less brazen than the book's flameout, yet equally gory and off-putting on its own terms. At the end of the day, this is merely a big-budget slasher movie, bereft of the underlying humanism that drove "Silence." Instead of seasoning Harris' cannibalistic recipe with a few new, nasty flavors, perhaps Scott and his crew should have followed the example of master chefs everywhere and started from scratch.