February 9th, 2007
Hannibal Lecter is back in theaters, and apparently he ate the fun, mystery, and sinister edge of this once proud and highly effective horror franchise.
The Weinstein Company went out of their way to make sure I didn’t see a press screening of “Hannibal Rising” this week. Now I understand why.
As a young boy in Lithuania, Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) witnessed the horrors of World War II firsthand. When an unspeakable act of violence and violation leaves him orphaned, Lecter is left with a life of nightmares as he travels throughout Europe in search of a home. Landing on the doorstep of his widowed Japanese aunt (Gong Li), Lecter is taken in by the lonely woman, who starts him off on a path of education in both life and death. When Lecter gets a hint that old enemies (lead by Rhys Ifans) are within reach, he packs up and kicks off a design for revenge that will challenge the limits of his soul and appetite.
It might be startling to note that this is Lecter’s fifth adventure onscreen. From the 1980s (“Manhunter”) to the early 1990s (“Silence of the Lambs”), and vaulting to the 2000s (“Hannibal,” “Red Dragon”), Lecter has been a figure of cinematic nightmares for over 20 years now. If you want to blame anyone for keeping this series going, it should be legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, who has made it his personal mission to see that the madman never rests. “Hannibal Rising” demonstrates without a doubt that this character and cockeyed franchise has run its course.
I will give De Laurentiis credit for not skimping on this prequel. While other franchises pull back on the production values with origin tales, “Rising” looks as good as any other Lecter romp. Serious coin was spent to imagine Lecter’s early days, and director Peter Webber (“The Girl with a Pearl Earring”) captures an intriguing outdoorsy atmosphere, playing nicely against the other films which dealt mostly with dank cells and menacing houses. When all is said and done, “Rising” looks tremendous. I only wish the story was as interesting as the locations.
In adapting his own novel, Thomas Harris lost his will to pursue the myth of Lecter with the kind of tenacity he used to enjoy. The other Lecter yarns benefited from a sly aroma of fear and intimidation, while “Hannibal” was a giddy night at the opera. “Hannibal Rising” doesn’t really have anything to add here. Thomas attempts to map a way from this origin to the later years, but the author gets lost in his own harebrained minutiae.
Would you believe Hannibal Lecter studies the way of the Samurai in the picture?
Bizarre touches like that compete constantly with Webber’s self-consciously baroque direction, and for the first hour, it all swishes together in a campy, entertaining fashion; the bad guys lick their lips and growl at the camera, Lecter prances about, and the line readings come straight from a Saturday night Telemundo soap opera. There is fun in that, but Webber can’t sustain the pleasure, and Harris loses all ambition once the picture enters hour two.
The second half of the film is a complete bore while assembling this ludicrous notion: Hannibal Lecter as a hero. It’s one thing to have a needless feature film come out and explain a monster’s razor edge, but to flat-out make him champion of personal justice is too much of stretch. A Hannibal Lecter film doesn’t need villains, he is the villain. The last half of the film devolves into Snidely Whiplash kidnap scenarios, Zorro-style chest carvings (“M is for Mischa!”), and a “Kill Bill” revenge template that’s nothing more than chance for Webber to try out some pedestrian slasher film techniques.
I guess the ultimate insult of “Rising” is trying to find a young actor to fill the shoes of Anthony Hopkins, or even Brian Cox. French actor Gaspard Ulliel is all wrong for the part, from his Dracula-like accent to the clothes, which resemble Dieter’s black ensemble from “Sprockets” at times. The rest of the actors are bound by Webber’s “more is more” direction, but Ulliel gets a sizable amount of screentime to figure out the role. It just never takes, and his Lecter comes off as a petulant little snot rather than the birth of unholy malevolence.
My rating: D+