There are certain villains in literature and cinema that leave a lasting impression on the audience. For lack of a better term they just ‘creep us out’ and we love it. While many of these examples of ultimate evil are monstrosities that are beyond the realm of reality one is all too real in his possibility, Hannibal Lecter, better know as Hannibal the Cannibal. He is a perfect gentleman, always gallant and well posed. He is extremely intelligent and well read. Hannibal would seem like the perfect host for an urbane dinner party except for the fact that if you offended him in any way you just might wind up a course in the meal. When Thomas Harris created Hannibal in ‘The Red Dragon’ the character caught on like wild fire. Naturally, the audience clamored for more and more. While ‘Silence of the Lambs’ represents the best portrayal of this heinous character the latest installment of the Hannibal saga, ‘Hannibal Rising’ brings us the least imaginative of the lot. This is a prequel, a look at what happened in young Hannibal’s life that could turn him into a man capable of killing and devouring other humans. Many fans may have wondered over the years as to what events in a life could drive a man to this end but the realization does not live up to the expectations.
The film opens in 1944 where eight year Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) is living with family estate, Lecter Castle in Lithuania. At this time the Nazis where literally at the gates. In order to evade the advancing German troops Hannibal takes his younger sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) to the family hunting lodge. Although the children have escaped the castle events there were grimly unfolding. Six Lithuanian men, Grutas (Rhys Ifans), Dortlich (Richard Brake), Grentz (Ivan Marevich), Kolnas (Kevin McKidd), Milko (Stephen Walters), and Pot Watcher (Goran Kostic) are anxious to join the ranks of the Germans. Not only do they want to become Nazis they aspire to joining the elite Schutzstaffel, the dreaded and feared SS. As part of their initiation the SS commandant orders them to execute the Jewish cook of the Lecter household. This not only doesn’t present any moral dilemma to the men it is something they do with enthusiasm. The Soviets move in on the area and the Commandant is killed but Grutas has a bright idea, steal the identities of the SS. As the Soviet army advances on their position the brigands have little recourse but to flee into woods. Big surprise here but they just happen upon the lodge where Hannibal and little Mischa are hiding. This turns out to be a particularly brutal winter and food is extremely difficult to obtain so the men decide that Mischa is the next best thing to a veal dinner. Moving ahead eight years The Lecter castle is now a Soviet administered orphanage. One of the orphans is none other than Hannibal (now played by Gaspard Ulliel). Life there is not pleasant to say the least. Hannibal is attacked by a bully and defends himself with a fork and winds up in the family dungeon. Things begin to look up for the lad when he discovers he has relatives in Paris. He goes off to live with the widow of his late uncle, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li).
She takes the boy in and teaches him the finer points of manhood including the art of love and the deadly use of the Katana, the traditional sword of Samurai warriors. What else could a fledgling serial killer need? When a local butcher insults Lady Murasaki , Hannibal tracks him down to remote fishing spot and demands an apology. That not forthcoming the boy uses his sword to slice the man open and take his head. Lady Mursaki is not without power in the community and Hannibal is not charged. Hannibal becomes the youngest medical student in France but he is a far cry from being Doougie Howser. While working in the hospital he sees a man being interrogated with the truth drug, sodium thiopental. Hannibal decides to self administer the drug to force himself to remember long suppressed details of his sister’s death. He recalls some clues back in the lodge and sets off to examine them. At the border Dortlich is now a guard. Hannibal recognizes the man and tortures him to giving the location of the rest of the gang. When Hannibal decapitates him blood splashes on his face and Hannibal joyfully licks it off. There is not much point to relating any more of the story. Needless to say it is pretty standard revenge faire with Hannibal tracking down the men responsible for his sister’s death and dispatching them in ways that would make the villain in Saw proud.
Peter Webber, the director of this piece, scored a quite hit with ‘The Girl with a Perl Earring’ but misses the mark on this one. ‘Earring’ depended on the subtle acting and incredible sets to tell a story. Here his talent is doomed from the start by the unnecessary and ill conceived screen play. This was the first of the four Hannibal flicks were the screen play was penned by the author of the novel, Thomas Harris. When people ask ‘why bother’ about the novel chances are they film script will not do much better. The thing is some things are better left to the imagination of the audience. Not knowing the origins of a villain like Hannibal Lecter just added to the mystery that surrounded him. He remains one of the greatest villains because he juxtaposes the ultimate in civility with one of the great taboos in any culture, being consumed by another person. While the other films in the series were thrillers this one degrades into a slasher style horror flick. This movie is inspired more by the recent commercial success of flicks like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ that adding to the Hannibal saga. It does work to some degree on the horror genre level and thankfully is not as graphic as some of its peers.
Gaspard Ulliel has the older Hannibal has a very unenviable task. Not only does he have to take on one of the most recognizable villains ever he has to follow one of the most talented actors today, Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins defined the character so perfectly in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ that Ulliel’s performance comes across as a dim imitation. It might have helped a lot if Ulliel shared some physical characteristics with Sir Anthony, after all much of the character of Hannibal is in the eyes and body movements. Ulliel appears to try to redefine the character but the die was cast long before production began.
Usually the Weinstein Company is a fantastic source of quality cinema. In this case they could not do much here except give a good transfer to DVD. Even the best batter will strike out now and again so you really can’t blame the Weinstein Company for the short comings of the film. They should reconsider the corporate position of the person who approved the film. There are two versions of this release. One is an ‘R’ Rated pan & scan; the other an Unrated widescreen. The video is well done with an excellent and natural color balance. The Dolby 5.1 audio will let you hear every scream provided. This is most likely the last of the Hannibal franchise. While not the best in the series you can order a couple of pizzas and some beer, dim the lights and give it a try.