In marketing terms, Hannibal Rising offers a prime example of what's called "diluting the brand."
When Anthony Hopkins first stepped into the Hannibal Lecter role back in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs introduced a human-looking movie monster with few precedents beyond Bela Lugosi first donning the Dracula cape. Since then, with the sequel Hannibal and the prequel Red Dragon (technically a remake of 1986's Manhunter with the book's original title), Hannibal's big-screen copyright holders have been squeezing every last drop of intrigue and potential cash from the character. Hopkins hasn't stuck around for Hannibal Rising, but author Thomas Harris wrote the novel and screenplay for a rote revenge story that could be called Young Hannibal.
We first see Hannibal as a boy playing with his huggable younger sister outside "Lecter Castle" in 1944 Lithuania. The war forces his family to evacuate, and the collision of a German plane with a Russian tank captures the refugees' rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma. Hannibal and his sister become captives of a band of Nazi collaborators turned savage looters, led by Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans). When they face starvation, Grutas chomps into the body of an unplucked bird, and then eyes the kids as if planning the next item on the menu. Director Peter Webber's early scenes prove almost pornographically crass in the way they menace and torment small children.
Leaping forward eight years, mute, teenaged Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) flees an Iron Curtain orphanage and makes his way to the home of his only surviving relative. His Japanese aunt (by marriage), played by Gong Li, draws Hannibal from his silent brooding and begins teaching him the art of ancient Japanese swordplay.
So young Hannibal has samurai skills? You're kidding, right?
Enrolling in medical school teaches him finer points of human anatomy, and he gradually begins tracking down the former Lithuanian looters -- now ensconced as Soviet-era police or Western European gangsters -- to avenge his sister's grisly, gradually revealed fate. Along the way, he matches wits with inspector Popil (Dominic West), a French detective who specializes in war crimes. Because Hannibal, Popil and the aunt all lost their families in World War II, Hannibal Rising feints at a serious theme of the most morally justifiable way to track down and punish war criminals. Given that Saddam Hussein was executed for such crimes barely a few weeks ago, the drama should resonate beyond the film.
Instead, Hannibal Rising shows no interest in authentic war-crime procedures, and as the dramatic antihero, Hannibal shows little crisis of conscience (especially since we know how he turns out). The film generates precious little suspense beyond showing an evil med student contriving grotesque punishments and wondering how much stage blood the gore-effects guys will use from scene to scene.
Ulliel, a young French actor recently seen in 2004's A Very Long Engagement, dutifully attempts the thankless task of imitating Hopkins' Oscar-winning work, and generally alternates between smug leer and sinister pout. With China's Gong Li as the Japanese aunt and English actor West (best known for playing a Baltimore cop on "The Wire"), the movie offers a welter of uncomfortable accents.
The film diminishes the mystery of the character by laying out Hannibal's backstory as a traumatic childhood. He doesn't choose being a monster so much as reacts to his environment. But it's worth remembering Hopkins' first appearance in the role. It wasn't with a shocking "Boo!" or portentous stepping-out-of-the-shadows. Jodie Foster stepped before his cell and Hopkins was just standing there, smiling, as if awaiting introduction at a party, untroubled by the fact that they were separated by bullet-proof glass in a dungeon-like madhouse. His evil was something matter-of-fact, untouched by his sinister surroundings or any comforting explanation. Hannibal Lecter was just there, as if he'd always been there.
Hannibal Rising marks the second-to-the-last stage of a once-potent screen presence. It's comparable to how the Boris Karloff-era Frankenstein monster first emerged in the superb Frankenstein in 1931, lumbered through weaker follow-ups such as Son of Frankenstein (1939) then endured outright ridicule in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Hopefully, Thomas Harris and the film's producers will spare the cannibal genius the indignity of, say, Hannibal vs. Larry the Cable Guy.