A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 117 mins.
Hannibal Lector: Gaspard Ulliel /
Inspector Popil: Dominic West / Lady Murusaki: Gong Li /
Directed by Peter Webber / Written by Thomas Harris, based on his book
After suffering through HANNIBAL RISING I felt like one of the title character’s victims just before the kill. Perhaps I should spare you of some much needed time and not write another one of my long, detailed, and thorough full length reviews and just end it right here.
Who am I kidding?
Okay, but two words alone can sum up HANNIBAL RISING:
Hannibal Lector is easily one of the cinema’s most iconic of all screen villains and one of fiction’s greatest creations. After seeing the light of day in Thomas Harris’ novels, it seemed a ripe time in the mid 1980’s for one of his books to be made into a feature. There was 1986’s MANHUNTER, a tense and taut Michael Mann thriller, which starred Brain Cox as the famous cannibal. Then came 1991’s Oscar darling, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which starred the Sir Anthony Hopkins in the legendary role that is now considered immortal by the movie gods. The films and character became so popular that sequels seemed inevitable. Ridley Scott’s HANNIBAL came in 2001 (oddly ineffective considering the director) and the next year saw Brett Ratner's RED DRAGON (oddly effective considering the director), a adaptation of Thomas Harris’s first Lector book, which – ironically – was made into MANHUNTER years earlier.
After watching the last three Lector film efforts, one painfully inevitable conclusion is reached:
Hopkins is truly irreplaceable in the part.
I think that the key to classic film roles is that it is next to impossible to see any other actor occupying them. What Hopkins did masterfully in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and, to a degree, in HANNIBAL and RED DRAGON was to forge the personification of evil. In his hands, Lector was not one of those maniacal, blood-thirsty, and brainless serial killers. Hopkins made him a literate, ruthlessly cunning, and a wonderfully well spoken creation. That’s what makes him so terrifying and fun to watch. Seeing Hopkins be so effortlessly droll, eerily charming, and endlessly haunting in the part was a joy to watch. There was always an uneasy tension and creepiness to Lector. He was a soft-spoken and cultured monster, which made him truly frightening.
This prologue brings me HANNIBAL RISING, which only goes out of its way to prove that you should never, ever conceive to make a film about an enigmatic and iconic film character without having the talent that made the part famous. Oh, but wait…this is a prequel to the other Hannibal films that tries…nay…pains to tell us of the secret motivation that made Lector who he would eventually become. Yet, the makers seem to lack any foresight whatsoever in knowing that (a) perhaps de-mystifying Lector is not what audiences want and (b) seeing a Lector film without Hopkins is a waste of time…honestly!
It has be proven that you simply cannot go back to the cinematic well, regurgitate legendary screen parts immortalized by other actors, and hope for success. Can anyone honestly see anyone else in the part but Hopkins? Lector goes on a short list of great screen personas that can’t simply be played as well by other actors. Consider…say…Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther series. For me, no one could ever adequately fill the shoes of Peter Sellers. That’s what made the PINK PANTHER remake of 2006 utterly dead on arrival; Steve Martin is funny, but he can’t replace Sellers and, more crucially, why would anyone want to? The same holds true for Lector. It’s simply too difficult for me to watch another actor play him. When this happens, the new actor either comes off like he’s doing a horrible caricature of the famous role or he is doing an equally dreadful impersonation of the actor known for the role. Either way, making HANNIBAL RISING seems ridiculous in theory. Any young actor that would attempt to play a young Hannibal would simply carry too much baggage to bare.
Maybe it is why the twenty-something cannibal-to-be says almost nothing during the first 40 or so minutes of the film. When he finally utters a line, it is such a jaw-droppingly laughable exercise in attempting to duplicate Hopkins’ mannerisms. The wickedly bad performance is courtesy of Gaspard Ulliel, an otherwise fine French actor who appeared in A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT. Instead of attempting to create a something fresh and original with the role and make it his own (which one needs to done here) he goes for outright mimicry, and the results are cringe-worthy. It’s the kind of woefully preposterous imitation that one would find on SNL.
Ulliel is not the only damning bit of the film; HANNIBAL LECTOR tries to humanize a monster by explaining his roots that led to his demonic ways. Watching the film – essentially an origin story – I was reminded oddly of 2010, the sequel to Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. 2010 was by no means a terrible film like HANNIBAL RISING, but it resembles it in the sense that it probes and tries to solve all of the narrative puzzles and themes that permeated 2001. Yet, the great thing about 2001 is its stunning impenetrability; it’s brilliant because of its mysterious and inscrutable storyline. Sometimes, not knowing the answers to everything is a good thing. 2010 did not know this, as does HANNIBAL RISING. Really, do we really need to know why and how Lector starting dining on his favorite dish of human liver in a nice chianti?
If anything, the origin story is a real hum-dinger of horrid melodrama mixed with the trappings of a Charles Bronson revenge flick…with Nazis! As the film opens we see Hannibal as a young lad in 1944. He does not seem to have a vile bone in his body. Hell, he does not even try to burn ants with a magnifying glass. Instead, he’s a plucky and cheerful boy whose privileged live takes a nose dive during the war. During a violent and bloody battle between a Nazi aircraft and a Russian tank, Hannibal’s parents are brutally murdered and he is left alone to watch over his baby sister. Unfortunately, his home is taken over by a group of marauders that secure it to defend themselves. Soon, it appears that their food supply is growing very depleted. One of the evil men then starts to look at Hannibal and his sister. Perhaps they would make fine meals?
Yup. The dastardly marauders eat little Lector’s sister.
The film then flash forwards eight years where we see the older Hannibal (Ulliel) where the boy is haunted by the memories of dear, little sister being made into a broth (who wouldn't?). The story then goes in miraculously inane directions. He hooks up with his widowed Japanese, kendo trained aunt (I am not fooling), Lady Muraski (Gong LI, who just may be the most beautiful 41-year-old actress working). In pure Miyagi and Yoda-like fashion, Hannibal stumbles upon her secret samurai shrine to her ancestors and she soon begins to train him in the art of sword-fighting (?). Meanwhile, Hannibal is able to get a scholarship and become one of the youngest students at a prestigious medical school, despite the film never once explaining how he was able to secure such a spot.
It’s also a miracle that Hannibal managed to finish school and become a doctor because he then engages in a revenge mission that should have concluded with his prison sentence. With Muraski’s training – and her very sharp knives and swords – he goes on a cannibalistic rampage to find his sis’ killers so he can torture and eat them. Meanwhile, as Hannibal hunts his prey a Paris Inspector named Popil (Dominic West, wasted here) tries to do everything but bring Hannibal to justice.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Hannibal should go to jail for killing the men, the French war crimes officer lets him off the hook more times than I can count. Oh, he does facilitate the movie’s need for a person to utter it’s most ham-invested and cookie cutter dialogue. My favorite occurs after Hannibal passes a lie detector test perfectly, to which the inspector states, “He reacts to nothing…he’s monstrous.” Well, Lector himself also engages in witless and banal dialogue worthy of Ed Wood Jr., like when his aunt pleads, “Don't kill him,” and he responds, “But they ate my sister!!”
I could literally go on forever as to the problems with HANNIBAL RISING. Ulliel’s performance, as mentioned, is one issue, as is the film’s insistence with humanizing this monster. There is something borderline offensive about how the movie glamorizes and glorifies Lector’s sadism. Oh, but he’s actually the victim. If man-eating war criminals did not eat his sister, then he would have never committed further atrocities, would have never gone to prison, would have never met FBI agent Starling, and so forth. Granted, the men he kills mercilessly are equally evil, not to mention that they are in no way worthy of living. However, the film seems to sidestep the notion of all of his future murders of seemingly innocent people. Yes, Hannibal had a rougher than normal childhood, but the way the film kind of idly supports the character's barbarism is distasteful. By making him a hero to sympathize with, HANNIBAL RISING betrays everything the other Lector films achieved. Those films worked because they knew Lector as inexcusably treacherous and sadistic. HANNIBAL RISING takes the stance that the character is just a victim.
Some individual moments are unintentionally hilarious. I particularly loved one scene where one of his victims screams to Lector, “What did I ever do to you,” and he coolly responds, “Besides eating my sister…nothing.” I also giggled incessantly when Hannibal is forced to save his aunt when she is in the clutches of the enemy (she is literally tied to a chair and licked at one point). Another howler occurs when he criticizes another victim for using one particular condiment in excess.
I guess all of this leads to the notion that no director could have saved this ridiculous drivel. Thomas Harris alone should be put on notice. He not only penned the novel, but wrote the film screenplay. Another writer destroying the legacy of one of the great film characters of all-time would be acceptable; but when the source creator himself commits the act, he’s an unpardonable sin. Harris, if he were smart, would divorce himself from writing any more Lector novels.
Equal parts incredulously funny and overbearingly silly, HANNIBAL RISING demonstrates that the fifth return of Hannibal Lector to the silver screen is one time too many. With a script that lacks tension and genuine scares (which replaces it with gratuitous gore and carnage), dumb throwaway dialogue, and a limp and hackneyeyed origin story that pitifully tries to humanize a monster, HANNIBAL RISING is an empty and redundant mess of a film. I am completely Hannibal'ed out and wish to see no further continuation of this character in the movies. Staring at the screen and asking myself “why” for two hours should never occur while watching a film, but HANNIBAL RISING allows for it. Watching it reminded me of something a friend once told me - Films are of two varieties: ones that you talk about days after you’ve seen them and ones that you instantly forget about as you leave the theatre and walk to your car.
HANNIBAL RISING is in the latter category.