Hannibal Rising (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Remember the first time you saw Hannibal Lecter? The brilliant, psychotic psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs?
Though he was only onscreen for approximately 16 minutes, Hopkins won an Academy Award for Best Actor because his every gesture and vocal inflection reminded us of the unspeakable evil that lurked behind that cold, emotionless stare. He commanded both fear and respect from the audience. Hopkins' performance was the very definition of screen presence. And as much as 22-year-old Gaspard Ulliel dutifully tries to honor our fondest Lecter memories in Hannibal Rising, the story of Lecter's murderous youth, his predatorial gaze and sinister sneer do little to recreate the Lecter effect.
The beginnings of this monster are quite humble, really. When his house is raided and his parents are murdered by a group of rogue Russian soldiers during World War II, a young Hannibal and his little sister are kidnapped and forced to spend a winter with the soldiers. The Russians meanwhile, have malicious intents they, like Lecter will one day become, are cannibals. When choosing which Lecter child to eat, the soldiers select the already ailing girl. Hannibal, meanwhile, is forced to join in effectively birthing the monster within.
Eight years later, Lecter is a medical student in France when he spies one of the soldiers (Rhys Ifans) who forced him to eat his own sister in order to survive. His studies in human anatomy serve him well, and with the reluctant help of his Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (a bored-looking Gong Li), Hannibal exacts revenge on the men who turned him into a vicious animal.
In returning to his most indelible character's origins, longtime Lecter novelist Thomas Harris adapts his own novel for the first time. But the result feels dull and uninspired; in Silence, and more recently Red Dragon, the most engaging aspect of the film was the cat and mouse relationship between cop and captive with both Clarice Starling and Will Graham proving worthy foes to Lecter. Here, however, Dominic West's Inspector Pascal Popil is investigating young Lecter's crimes, and there is no suspense as they circle each other.
West, who turns in top-shelf work week in and week out on HBO's "The Wire," is given nothing to do, and the film flatlines whenever his clueless inspector appears to flirt with the idea that maybe Hannibal is truly evil a pointless question, since this is a prequel and we already know the answer. Hannibal's unfortunate adolescence reveals no new insights into his depraved character, just excuses that function as a clumsy attempt to understand his homicidal behavior.
Granted, it's hard to separate Lecter from Hopkins' magnetic portrayal, but despite Ulliel's formidable presence, he remains a sitting duck for fans and critics alike. The young actor channels some dark places, and his effort keeps Hannibal Rising from fully sinking, but there is little about his performance to suggest the elder Lecter's wit or cunning.
There are some inventive death scenes to be sure, but Ulliel and director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) seem more concerned with fashioning a highbrow slasher film than the latest entry in the Hannibal Lecter series. And that's the problem. There's nothing that distinguishes Hannibal Rising as an entry in the famed franchise beyond the gratuitous use of cannibalism. This isn't a classic Lecter movie. Watchers with weak stomachs should probably skip this course entirely.