Hannibal (18)

Review by Jack Foley

DR HANNIBAL Lecter, the world's most famous celluloid cannibal, is back and this time he's hungry for big Box Office.

Ten years on from Jonathan Demme's multi-award winning The Silence Of The Lambs, Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as the brilliant but murderous psychologist with a penchant for human flesh. Having escaped from custody, Lecter is now at large in a picturesque Florence, surrounded by the things he has always loved - art, history and opera. He seems at peace, content with his new environment, yet lurking in the background are two reminders of a life he will never be able to let go of.

Firstly, there is Clarice Starling, the beautiful FBI agent sent to him for help in capturing the serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Lecter formed a bond with Starling and has watched her career ever since, as it takes a fast track to obscurity. When a drugs bust ends in the death of a mother during a violent shoot-out, Starling is hung out to dry by her FBI superiors and Lecter cannot resist the chance to console her. But just as he cannot let her go, so she is forced to use his contact as a means to recapture him and save her career.

And then there is the horrifically scarred Dr Mason Verger, a repellent multi-millionaire and only surviving victim of Lecter, who will stop at nothing to exact a vicious revenge. Using Starling as bait, the stage is set for a compelling battle of wits between the `good' doctor and those who would seek to slay him.

A lot has changed since The Silence Of The Lambs so impressed and horrified mainstream audiences. Gone is the subtlety, or the psychological mindgames which made the Lambs so compelling. Gone, too, is director Jonathan Demme and the original Starling, Jodie Foster - both citing much of the book's controversial content as reasons for their departure.

Replacing them, instead, is an ultra-stylish, yet frequently grisly potboiler which builds slowly, but oh-so impressively, to its grotesque finale. If Michael Mann's Manhunter (the first cinema outing for Dr Lecter) was the starter and The Silence Of The Lambs the main course (with plenty to tuck in to), then Hannibal is the dessert, a delicious finale which audiences should enjoy devouring even if it does leave them feeling a little bloated.

Director Ridley Scott (currently riding high off the success of Gladiator) has remained surprisingly faithful to Thomas Harris's best-seller, save for changing its bizarre ending and omitting a few characters (Verger's sister has gone completely).

Yet anyone hoping to avoid the book's shocking final dinner party would be best advised to look away, as it is only after Lecter and co tuck into the exposed brain of a still-living victim that the events of the book change somewhat! Indeed, much of the violence contained within the novel is left intact, so expect to gasp in appalled horror during a spectacular disembowelling and writhe in disgust at those man-eating pigs.

As Lecter, the gleeful perpetrator of much of the gore, Hopkins again revels in the role, managing to combine the much-needed malevolence inherent with being a serial killer with a kind of sympathetic roguishness capable of making him the hero of the piece. His likeability lies in his charm and his fondness for one-liners, yet he can be equally terrifying when dispatching his victims even with a glib "okey-dokey" or teasing "ta, ta".

His relationship with Starling is again well played and as the gutsy, yet vulnerable, FBI agent, Julianne Moore easily steps into the shoes vacated by Foster. A scene in which the two communicate by phone while still in the same shopping mall is particularly exciting and the only one which truly evokes memories of the exchanges between the characters in Lambs.

Scott's movie is a very different creature from its predecessor, opting to show the attrocities committed by its protagonists rather than allowing them to play out in the mind. But while its psychological impact may have diminished, Hannibal is just as powerful a movie, giving Lecter the freedom he has always yearned for to do his worst.

Of the support players, Ray Liotta makes a suitably sleazy FBI colleague with a dislike for Starling, while Gary Oldman is remarkably restrained and all the more creepy as the abhorrent Mason Verger. Giancarlo Giannini's Italian inspector is another who leaves a good impression, particularly during the film's slow-building first half in Florence.

Hannibal may ultimately feel like a triumph of style over substance - the film looks and sounds great, thanks to Scott and Hans Zimmer - but there is still much to savour. Even Steven (Schindler's List) Zaillian and David Mamet's screenplay provides much for the stars to get their teeth into. And how many times can you say that the ending of a book has been changed by Hollywood for the better? Hannibal is, without doubt, a must-see movie and a strong contender for one of the year's highest gross-ers. Ta, ta!