Over twenty years after “Hannibal the Cannibal” made his film debut in MANHUNTER (1986), the Dr. Lecter saga peters out with this misguided sequel. The absolutely insurmountable problem is that the psychiatric serial killer was most intriguing and frightening as an inexplicable enigma – a walking, talking question mark regarding the nature of evil: Why would someone do this? Answering that question is a bit like a magician revealing the trick behind his magical illusion: the explanation is never as interesting as the mystery, which is thoroughly destroyed in the process.
Building upon a flashback introduced in the novel HANNIBAL (which was abandoned in the film adaptation), HANNIBAL RISING posits that as a boy, Hannibal Lecter saw his sister eaten by soldiers in Lithuania at the end of World War II. It’s a pretty horrible thought but goes nowhere toward explaining how Lecter himself became a cannibal serial killer, so the new storyline – set mostly with Lecter (Gaspard Uliel) as a young medical student – portrays his bloody quest for revenge in the aftermath of the war. The storyline’s sick little joke is that (like HANNIBAL) it will ask you to identify with Lecter as a kind of anti-hero, because his opponents are even worse than he is.
As a stand-alone film, the premise is enough to fuel a decent revenge movie melodrama. There is even a glimmer of intellectual conflict as Lecter crosses paths with an inspector (Dominic West) who specializes in war crimes. The film seems to say that the violence of war leaves open wounds that fester long after official hostilities have ceased, and there are human monsters worse than Lecter who thrive in a world racked by lawlessness and chaos. Both men, Inspector Popil and Lecter, want to catch these monsters, one by re-establishing the civilized concept of law-and-order, the other by resorting to lone-man vigilantism.
The problem is that, once this framework is established, the film goes nowhere with it. Lecter, despite apparently being some kind of aristocrat, is no Prince Hamlet: he may be cynical about the law, but there is a civil society in place that could mete out justice if he would only use it; his decision to pursue his own path is a personal one, not born of necessity. Without this, it is difficult if not impossible to see him as a tragic figure – which is apparently what the scenario expects of us. We simply never see him as a potentially good man destroyed by a conspiracy of tragic circumstances.
Furthermore, we never see him as the prototype of the character we met in the other Lecter stories. His situation and story are more reminiscent of comic book characters like Batman and The Crow: by the end of the movie, you expect him to put on leotards and a cape and dedicate himself to tracking down war criminals who have eluded the official authorities; a successful practice as a psychiatrist hardly seems conceivable – let alone a shift from killing for revenge to killing just for the joy of it.
As if sensing the problem, the script gives Inspector Pope a speech stating that the young boy Hannibal Lecter died in the frozen snows of Lithuania and what remains is a hollow monster, devoid of feeling, who should be studied by psychiatrists. Unfortunately, this interpretation is not buttressed by Lecter’s actions or by Uliel’s performance in the role.
Uliel is mostly strong and credible as a young man driven to seek revenge, but he comes across as more passionate and hotheaded than cool and calculating. In short, he’s a standard-issue vigilante, maybe more clever than most, but try as he might he is not the subtle schemer played first by Brian Cox and then by Anthony Hopkins. Nothing in the story helps make the transition.
Uliel is not helped by director Webber, who – despite doing a serviceable job overall – occasionally resorts to FRIDAY THE 13TH-style violence. The director’s blood and gore, along with the actor’s leers and grimaces, threaten to turn Lecter into a standard issue schlock-house movie slasher.
By the end, HANNIBAL RISING descends into the standard-issue silliness necessary to keep the door open for the subsequent stories we have already seen: after Lecter kills his final European victim aboard a boat, the boat goes up in flames, suggesting that Inspector Pope thinks Lecter is dead. So, when Lecter heads across the Atlantic, does he change his name? No. So how can Lecter’s past have remained such a mystery throughout the other films when Inspector Pope knew all about him? HANNIBAL RISING hopes you don’t bother to ask that question.
There’s the rub. As a prequel to the Lecter saga, HANNIBAL RISING is just barely short of ridiculous, providing no interesting insights to the famous horror icon. The idea would have stood far better on its own, allowing the story to work out and resolve the dramatic conflict between the Inspector and Lecter, instead of tossing the most interesting dramatic elements overboard in favor leaving Lecter at large.
Lecter’s aunt by marriage, Lady Murasaki, is played by Gong Li, who is not Japanese. Gaspard Uliel does not much resemble either Brian Cox or Anthony Hopkins (the two actors to play Lecter previously), but it is slightly easier to imagine him growing up to be Cox rather than Hopkins.
The Weinstein Company’s May 29, 2007 DVD release of HANNIBAL RISING offers the film on disc in two versions: an R-rated Full Screen Edition (featuring the 117-minute theatrical cut) and an Unrated Widescreen Edition (with a running time of 130 minutes). The DVDs offer Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in English, with English and Spanish subtitles. Bonus features include:
- Audio commentary with director Peter Webber and producer Martha DeLaurentiis
- Five deleted scenes
- “Hannibal Lecter: The Origin of Evil” Featurette
- “Allan Starski: Designing Horror and Elegance” featurette
HANNIBAL RISING (February 2007). Directed by Peter Webber. Screenplay by Thomas Harris, based on his novel. Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Dominc West, Kevin McKidd, Rhys Ifans, Timothy Walker, Goran Kostic.