There's something darkly delicious about the fact that Hollywood and novelist Thomas Harris keep serving up Hannibal Lecter leftovers, making him the cannibal we just can't stop consuming. Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal make perfect sense, in a modern thriller masterpiece and its inevitable sequel kind of a way. Brett Ratner's Red Dragon (2002) was a revisitation of Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) but a particularly noteworthy one, much to everyone's surprise. Still, it was a little like the turkey sandwiches that come the day after the real Thanksgiving feast: tasty, but getting perhaps a little too familiar. We'd seen this already, for the most part, but still we saw it again, shushing the cynical voice whispering that Dragon was probably more about commerce than art. Who cared? It was another chance to see Anthony Hopkins sink his teeth into one of the greatest movie madmen of all time. A movie could be a total shambles around that perfect performance of his and still be considered worthwhile.
And that's the key. Hopkins is the not-so-secret ingredient in all the Lecter films, the reason Red Dragon's reheating of the Hopkins-less Manhunter was even remotely acceptable. Remove him from the recipe, and the material's just not as interesting. Remove him from the recipe, and you risk ending up with Peter Webber's prequel Hannibal Rising, which is truly little more than a pathetic picking over of what are now starting to seem like the old and tired bones of a story best left alone.
With every monster comes the question "Born or made?" Rising pretends to consider those choices, going back to Hannibal Lecter's Lithuanian childhood to seek out the seeds of his perversity. And yet what it ultimately offers is unsatisfyingly too simple. For years now, Hopkins and Harris have given us Lecter as a charming, chilling cipher, a man more complicated than conventional notions of good and evil. So there's no excuse for Rising's ham-handed, surface-sitting explanations of where all that creative monstrosity comes from. Rising, you can bet on it, would make Dr. Lecter angry. And you know what he would have to say about that.
Rising introduces Lecter as young boy, the son of Lithuanian aristocrats, a seemingly happy family caught up in the insanity of eastern front World War II. "Seemingly," because we are only offered the shortest of glimpses of normal life for the Lecters. How much more could Harris have given his audience if he'd only shown something of what Hannibal was like before war and hardship? But all he offers is a short scene of an 8-year-old Lecter (Aaron Thomas) playing in the dirt with a baby sister he obviously dotes on, the impossibly adorable, plump-cheeked Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska). Literally caught in the crossfire of German and Russian troops, the Lecter parents are killed, leaving the two children to fend for themselves. They are soon set upon by a band of looters, led by the vicious Grutas (Rhys Ifans). If any one person can be blamed for the birth of Hannibal the Cannibal, maybe it is Grutas, both for what he does during this first meeting and later reveals in their last.
Hannibal survives the looters, but Mischa does not, a loss that haunts him as he is eventually returned to his family's former castle, which has been turned into an orphanage by the Soviet state. Here, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) hones his dislike for bullies ' and his predilection to express that dislike in innovatively violent ways. He soon escapes from Eastern Europe all together, traveling to France to the only family left him, aunt-by-marriage Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li). Hannibal and Murasaki make an odd couple, especially when Hannibal begins his medical studies and starts, well, becoming Hannibal.
That, ironically, is where the movie begins to fall off. After offing a particularly offensive town butcher, Hannibal, dogged by the determined Inspector Popil (Dominic West), starts to track down the band of looters one by one to kill them in his own bizarre way. And it couldn't be more boring. Don't be surprised if after murder No. 1, you find yourself calculating how many more of these there are to go.
Ulliel is part of the problem. He's not Lecter, not even a young one. He's a smirking cardboard villain, stumbled in from a comic book. It's not totally his fault; Harris' script lacks proper pacing and gives Ulliel next to nothing that's interesting to say. Coupled with a cinematography saturated in red (yeah, we get it; he's a bloody cannibal), the lack of actual characterization makes Rising rather ordinary.
The film has one tantalizing moment, all the more crystalline for its solitariness. After the butcher's body is discovered, Inspector Popil administers a lie-detector test to young Lecter. Asked if he has any "guilty knowledge" of the butcher's death, Lecter smiles a half-smile and queries "Guilty knowledge?" It's the only moment in the film worthy of the Hannibal Lecter we all love and loathe.