Friday, February 09, 2007

Food For Thought: “Hannibal Rising” Proves It’s Not the Greatest Story Ever Told

Let’s take a moment and trace the history of one of cinema’s most frightening yet sophisticated serial killers. In Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” Hannibal Lecter had yet to become a household name. Brian Cox briefly played him with a fierce intensity that was chilling but not really particularly memorable. Then came “The Silence of the Lambs” a film nearly perfect in every way. Anthony Hopkins blew nearly everyone away as a monster taking the shape of a human being. He was frightening just to look at yet he was so utterly fascinating. In “Hannibal,” the long awaited follow-up, he’s on the loose yet he’s a lot less scary. By focusing more on Lecter rather than another killer (i.e. Tooth Fairy in “Manhunter,” Buffalo Bill in “Lambs”) he became more of an antihero. I mean come on, didn’t everyone cheer when he fed Ray Liotta his own brains? “Red Dragon” went back to the basics and was more like “Lambs.” It was a decent re-imagining of the book and Lecter, while still masterfully played by Hopkins, began to become one note. And now we have the completely unnecessary “Hannibal Rising” which feels like a prologue to a better film. His childhood, as horrific as it was, isn’t very fascinating, and the film stops just when Lecter’s story should be getting good.

As directed by Peter Webber, the film has a good visual style and is well photographed, but that doesn’t really mean anything if the story doesn’t interest you. The film seems to be a strange brew of genres. The film begins during the Nazi invasion where Lecter is a young boy. His parents are killed so he’s left to care for his young sister Mischa. That is until some war criminals come in and end up dining on poor little Mischa. So that’s how a cannibal is born: eaten siblings. Flash forward years later where Lecter is a teenager (played by newcomer Gaspard Ulliel, more on him later) at a boarding school. Apparently he’s a mute except when he screams out Mischa’s name in the middle of the night. Then he escapes and travels to somewhere else in Europe where he meets up with his uncle’s Japanese wife. From here on the film becomes a “Kill Bill” revenge tale as Gong Li’s character trains him to be a master warrior. Call me crazy but I don’t recall Lecter being a trained warrior in “Silence of the Lambs,” but I digress. He first kills the man who insults Gong Li and we patiently wait for him to chow down on his first plate of liver and fava beans.

It’s impossible to analyze the film without thinking of the four previous versions, but this is by far the weakest. Even on it’s own it tells it’s story is a slightly plodding way. First this happens then that happens which causes this to happen. What a snooze! There’s nothing exciting waiting in the wings for us Lecter fans. No twists, no surprises. Now I’m beginning to realize why it took so long for this story to be told. Like previous “origin story” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” all this ends up being is an excuse to gather fans eager enough to waste more money on a film with the Lecter namesake.

As the teenage Lecter, Ulliel neither looks like a young Hopkins nor does he have the same aura of Hopkins. While I wasn’t expecting an imitation, I at least was trying desperately to figure out how this young man will become the psychotic psychiatrist we all know and love. Without comparing to Hopkins, he doesn’t really bring any psychological depth to his role. And boy is that scar on his cheek is irritating!

And one last thing. What kind of movie is this anyways? The previous films were thrillers and had scary moments, but this film has none. We’re put on Hannibal’s side from the very beginning. Are we supposed to feel bad for his victims? They ate little Mischa for crying out loud! The film is never scary, suspenseful or exciting. I blame Thomas Harris who as the creator of Hannibal the Cannibal should have written a movie with a lot more bite. GRADE: C-

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