Hannibal RisingReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/09/07 18:21:56
There have been rumors floating around for years that reclusive author Thomas Harris was so disturbed and unnerved by the worldwide popularity of his character Hannibal Lecter–the intelligent, erudite and cannibalistic killer that was introduced in his novels “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” and then became a horror icon thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance in Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of the latter–that when he sat down to write the long-anticipated follow-up “Hannibal,” he deliberately set out to create a work so demented and grotesque that it would kill audience interest in the character altogether and allow him to do different things. And yet, while many readers were put off by the various twists and turns when the book was published in 1999 (especially the ultra-perverse ending featuring Lecter and Clarice Starling running off together after eating the brains of a mutual antagonist), the book was still a best-seller and audiences flocked to both the 2001 film adaptation and 2002's “Red Dragon” in order to see Hopkins chewing the scenery (as well as some cast members) in the role that made him a superstar.No doubt frustrated that his attempt to kill the franchise only ended with him earning millions of dollars from the books and movies, Harris presumably sat down to hash out the kind of Hannibal Lecter story that would be so terrible, so pointless and such a betrayal of what it was that made him so fascinating in the first place that it would push readers and viewers away forever. Finally, he hit upon a foolproof method of destroying public interest in his creation: he would take a character whose power and hold over audiences was largely derived from the fact that he never really bothered to explain what it was that made him tick–based on the correct assumption that what is unknown is usually far more unsettling than what is known–and ruin the mystery by expanding a couple of paragraphs from “Hannibal” into a prequel that would offer incessant explanations into Lecter’s background history to show us exactly why he does the things that he does. The resulting film, “Hannibal Rising,” is pretty much an all-out disaster from start to finish but for Harris, it should provide the happy ending he has been longing for–it is a film so bad that I cannot possibly imagine anyone who makes it through to the end would ever again have any desire to see or hear from the good doctor again.
Opening in 1944 in war-torn Lithuania, the films opens with young Hannibal fleeing with his parents and beloved younger sister, Mischa, to a remote lodge to avoid the fighting. Alas, the peace is short lived when a confrontation between Russian and German forces in the front lawn lead to the loss of his parents results in Hannibal and Mischa being left alone until a group of ruthless looters show up looking for a place to hide. Before too long, what little food there is runs out and the intruders decide to take Mischa and turn the small fry into a small roast. After filling up, they escape and a now-traumatized Hannibal is rescued by Russian soldiers and sent to live in an orphanage based out of the castle that he once called home.<
After getting revenge on a bully, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel), who is haunted by nightmares of what happened to Mischa, escapes the orphanage and makes his way to France to live with his widowed aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who thoughtfully teaches him how to arrange flowers, appreciate the finer point of gourmet cooking and achieve samurai-style revenge on your enemies, preferably by chopping off heads with swords. After a test run on a crude butcher who insults Murasaki while shopping one day, Hannibal, now a med student working his way through school by preparing bodies in the morgue, injects himself with truth serum in order to fully recall the identities of the men who snacked on his sister. Luckily, all but one of them now reside in France as well and he goes around picking them off one by one while matching wits with a police detective (Dominic West) who is certain that Hannibal is responsible for the mounting body count–not to mention the pieces bit out of their faces–but finds his suspect is too clever to be pinned down that easily.
Obviously, “Hannibal Rising” was put together as a quickie cash-in vehicle but it comes up painfully short even by those standards–with its sloppy plotting, endless reminders of elements from the other films (at one point, Lecter picks up a mask that looks vaguely like the one he donned in “Silence of the Lambs” and puts it on for absolutely no reason) and essentially no-star cast, it looks more like a direct-to-video sequel that somehow wound up getting an inadvertent theatrical release. Instead of trying to challenge our notions of Hannibal Lecter as a way of expressing his ambivalence towards the folk-hero status accorded to his creation , Harris instead sticks him in the middle of a standard-issue revenge plot and pits him against villains so cartoonishly nasty and hateful that even the most peaceable viewers will want to see Hannibal hack them into bits. Worse than that is the utter absence of at least one character as smart and perceptive as our anti-hero–the dedicated cop that we are given instead is so bland and formless that every time he walks into a scene, it takes a minute or so to remember who he is in the first place.
Another significant flaw is the lack of a director with a clear approach to handling Harris’ lurid storylines. In each of the previous Lecter-related films, the directors brought something distinctive to the party–“Manhunter” gave Michael Mann a chance to explore the cop-criminal dynamic that has always held a special interest for him, “Silence of the Lambs” allowed Jonathan Demme to fuse together the classic traditions of Gothic horror with a more contemporary feminist sensibility and Ridley Scott’s underrated and misunderstood “Hannibal” was a spellbinding exercise in operatic storytelling filled with black humor, over-the-top gore and twisted romance. (I am consciously ignoring Brett Ratner’s superfluous “Manhunter” remake “Red Dragon” from the equation, though I will admit that it is better than the film currently under discussion.) By comparison, Peter Webber (whose previous work was “Girl With a Pearl Earring”) demonstrates no discernable flair for any aspect of the material. The pacing is molasses-like, the psychological tension is non-existent and even the gore scenes show a distinct lack of imagination. He also doesn’t have a clue of what to do with the actors either. Instead of making the character of Hannibal Lecter into his own creation, Gaspard Ulliel (best known as the lost love from “A Very Long Engagement”) offers up little more than a third-rate impression of Anthony Hopkins. The wonderful Chinese actress Gong Li is given nothing to do except to stand around and look ravishing (which she can do in her sleep, an excellent approach considering the material she has been presented with here) and the other actors seem to be engaged in a private contest amongst themselves to see who can make the least distinctive impression on audiences.“Hannibal Rising” is essentially the “Superman IV” of the Hannibal Lecter series–a low-rent and low-witted attempt to milk a few more bucks out of a franchise whose days has come and gone–you half expect Jon Cryer or Mariel Hemingway to pop up in cameos along the way. It is a real shame because Lecter has been such a fascinating character in his previous screen excursions that I would have loved to have seen him appear in a film with a story more worthy of his unique persona. Instead, all we have been given is an exercise in pure greed that is so shameless and devoid of artistic inspiration that it might inspire the good doctor to have Harris, Webber and producer Dino De Laurentis for dinner–the results of that would be far easier to swallow than “Hannibal Rising.”
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