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Some second helpings just aren't as rich as the first. But that doesn't mean they aren't still very good. "Hannibal," the sequel to 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," is a delectable confection that leaves a slightly different aftertaste than its predecessor. Whereas the first was gritty and gripping, "Hannibal" is more grotesque and gothic.

"Lambs" was intense enough to get under everybody's skin. "Hannibal" is a different animal altogether. While still a beautiful work of art, the film is a treat to all of those who simply wanted more of filmdom's most intelligent id. "Lambs" was all about discovery, about getting to know the complex Special Agent Clarice Starling (then played by Jodie Foster), falling in love with psychopathic Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), and savoring the unconventional relationship as it developed between the two.

 
Quick Cut
"Hannibal"
Starring: Anthony Hopkins

Grade: B

"Hannibal," however, is very much a reunion story, not just between Starling (now played by Julianne Moore) and Lecter, but also between an audience and the character that won them all over. While well crafted, it is primarily a work of entertainment - a tribute to the people who made "Lambs" one of the most surprisingly beloved films of all time.

Despite the story's emphasis on reunion, everybody responsible for the Oscar sweep enjoyed by "Lambs" is gone, except for one (I'll get to him in a minute). Ridley Scott now directs, bringing with him an eye that matches Jonathan Demme's visual acuity in the original. Ted Tally, who adapted "Lambs," is out, and David Mamet ("State and Main") and Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List") are in, with most of the credit going to Zaillian. And Clarice now boasts portrayals by two of the best in the business, Foster and now Moore.

But "Hannibal" is Hopkins' movie, through and through. Other great actors could have played the role (a little known fact is that Gene Hackman was slated to play Hannibal in "Lambs" until heart surgery forced him to bow out), and another actually has: Brian Cox, in 1986's "Manhunter." His is a fine performance in a decent movie, but it was Hopkins who turned Hannibal into the signature performance of a decade. Mamet and Zaillian try too hard at times to conjure up dialogues as memorable as that in "Lambs;" it's Hopkins who feasts on his lines and turns them into poetry.

Remaining largely faithful to author Thomas Harris' novel, "Hannibal" examines the many faces of evil. In addition to Hannibal, there is a corrupt police detective, Rinaldo Pazzi (the excellent Giancarlo Giannini) out to nab the killer in Florence and take the reward for himself. There's Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), Starling's rival agent, who is still smarting from her dismissal of the married man's romantic office overtures.

The ugliest face of all belongs to Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, billed only in the closing credits), a wealthy sadist who also happens to be Hannibal's only living victim. Kudos to Greg Cannom's makeup department, whose creation of Verger's face suggests terror and tragedy, but mostly sheer fascination. Again, the audience becomes enraptured in a dance with the devil. Verger plans to kidnap Hannibal on his own and send him to his death, courtesy of some ravenous Sardinian boars.

In consolidating the narrative, Mamet and Zaillian skimp, depriving us of some of Verger's motivation and also that of his assistant. These are people at their most primitive and animalistic. Evil and badness soon become relative, and Hannibal becomes more than just the title character. He becomes our hero.

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    For the last decade, the film tells us, Hannibal has remained committed to the finer things in life, such as art, Chianti and cannibalism. Clarice, too, has remained a pillar of decency and determination, though she has unjustly taken the fall for a botched drug raid. "Hannibal" resurrects the theme of patriarchy established in "Lambs." No one treats Clarice with the respect she deserves, simply because she isn't one of the guys. Anyone wishing to hear a comparison between Foster's and Moore's work is out of luck here. Foster gave us Clarice as a fledgling trainee, while Moore shows us a tormented veteran.

    "Hannibal" doesn't have the suspense of "Lambs," nor its sense of philosophical and spiritual questioning. It is largely a game of cat-and-mouse, with both Clarice and Hannibal trying not to fall prey to others. The two only have a few scenes together. And their best one occurs with the two on opposite ends of a cell phone. This is the film at its best - darkly comic, bloody fun.

    Rarely does Hollywood go to such lengths to send a thank-you note to its fans, but "Hannibal" is one such example. I advise everyone with a strong stomach to eat it up.

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