The recent prequel to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” offered good evidence that trying to prolong a moribund franchise by fashioning an installment explaining a classic villain’s murderous drives from some psychological perspective is a really bad idea. This movie about the character-shaping youth of Hannibal Lecter proves the point conclusively. The title might be “Hannibal Rising,” but even after the horrid “Hannibal” (2001) this is surely the low point of the series.
It can’t all be blamed on the filmmakers, though. Thomas Harris deserves a major part of the blame. He was once a fine popular writer—“Black Sunday” was an excellent thriller, and both “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” were superb books of their type. But ever since then things have gone downhill. The print versions of “Hannibal” and “Hannibal Rising” (the latter released only a short time ago) descended into pure Grand Guignol territory, the style rivaling the worst excesses of Anne Rice. And since Harris also penned the script for this flick, you can’t blame some anonymous adapter for being responsible for its failings. “Hannibal” and the remake of “Red Dragon” were distinct falloffs from “Lambs,” but “Hannibal Rising” really takes the series to new depths.
In this telling, Lecter’s peculiarities can all be traced to his unhappy childhood. In war-torn Lithuania, the tyke (played by Aaron Thomas) sees his beloved parents killed in a firefight between Nazi invaders and Russian soldiers, and then he and his young sister (Helena Lia Tachovska) are taken prisoner by a group of local thugs, who actually eat little sis when their food runs out. Hannibal escapes, winds up in a cruel Soviet orphanage, and then (now Gaspard Ulliel) escapes it as well—but not before brutalizing one of the nastier overseers. He makes his way across the Iron Curtain to France, where he’s taken in by his widowed aunt (Gong Li, playing Japanese again), who teaches him courtesy and the way of the samurai.
Hannibal’s first kill, in fact, comes in defense of the honor of his aunt, with whom he develops a relationship some might describe as unnaturally close. But before long he uses his training as a medical student—which gives him access to drugs as well as corpses and smocks—to retrieve his long-lost memories and retrace his steps to Lithuania, where he begins a chain of revenge killings marked by cannibalistic touches that take him hip-hopping across Europe (and eventually to Canada) in pursuit of the war criminals who twisted his own psyche. Meanwhile he himself falls under the suspicion of an upright French policeman (boring Dominic West) who also lost family in the war.
“Hannibal Rising” has received lavish treatment from Dino De Laurentiis, with attractive European locales and glowing cinematography by Ben Davis that complements the swooning, lapidary style of director Peter Webber (“The Girl With the Pearl Earring”). But while the approach makes for some pretty images, it lacks energy, punch and—most fatally of all—humor. And it takes on entirely too many tasks. It doesn’t just seek to create an exotic, moody atmosphere of doom and dread. It also wants to “explain” Lecter, and in doing so make him not just an attractive monster but a sympathetic one. And to present a string of extravagant death scenes of the kind that sell slasher flicks to adolescent males. And to generate suspense by having that inspector on Hannibal’s trail and the men he’s after occasionally threatening him, too. In attempting to do all these things simultaneously, this handsomely appointed but turgid, dramatically inert movie simply bites off more than it can successfully chew.
And the cast is simply lost in the morass. Ulliel, who was so touchingly naïve in “A Very Long Engagement,” is stolid and statuesque here, straining to imitate Anthony Hopkins’ piercing gaze but never quite succeeding. (He doesn’t manage to suppress his accent very well, either.) And Gong Li, still looking strikingly beautiful, is given little to do but that. Everyone else is mere window dressing, though Rhys Ifans at least adds a smidgen of scenery-munching panache as the chief bad-guy.
But for the most part “Hannibal Rising” proves very hard to stomach.