Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal Lecter
Rhys Ifans as Vladis Grutas
Gong Li as Lady Murasaki Shikibu
Helena Lia Tachovska as Mischa
Dominic West as Inspector Pascal Popil
Aaron Thomas as Young Hannibal Lecter
Kevin McKidd as Petras Kolnas
Richard Brake as Enrikas Dortlich
Directed by Peter Webber
This weak prequel starts out dull and tedious, but once things do get going, you might wonder why they didn't just call it "Hannibal: First Blood."
The origins of the serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) are traced back to the brutal murder of his younger sister Mischa during WWII, but when he goes to medical university in France, Hannibal meets the beautiful Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) who offers to help him get revenge on the men who killed her.
When a movie does well, it gets a sequel, and when that sequel succeeds, a third film is likely to follow. So what happens when things seem to have run their course and there's nowhere left to go but back? That's when you convince the original author to write a new prequel exploring the origins of his popular character or at least that's the case with "Hannibal Rising," which sports a screenplay by Thomas Harris based on his own book. Despite Harris' close involvement, the story's focus on the younger Hannibal Lecter means that Anthony Hopkins is nowhere to be found, and ultimately, that's where it falters.
Hannibal Lecter's story begins during WWII when the young boy and his young sister Mischa watch their parents shot down by Nazi warplanes after escaping from their castle in Lithuania. The two orphaned kids aren't out of the woods as a group of looting defectors decide to take shelter in their family cottage. The despicable men chain the children up and decide to do with them, but the story then cuts forward eight years with the near-mute Hannibal living in an orphanage, where he's tormented by bullies until he strikes back. Later still, he's attending a medical academy in France where he meets Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who teaches him the way of the sword. Hannibal is still having nightmares about what the defectors did to his younger sister, so he decides to find these men and get his bloody revenge.
It's hard to knock the backstory Harris came up for Hannibal Lecter, because more than anyone else, he probably has some idea how the character came to be. Certainly, many of the pieces of this human puzzle are on display from his early love of food and art, his medical background, and even how he got into cannibalism, but there's something in the execution that makes the whole thing seem forced, even compared to Harris' last novel "Hannibal." Worse than that is the fact that the first 45 minutes of the movie are pretty dull, since it takes that long for Lecter's vicious behavior to rear its head. When Hannibal starts going after those who slight him things start getting more fun, leading to his decision to go after the war criminals that murdered his sister.
French actor Gaspard Ulliel has the unenviable role of being the third actor to play Hannibal Lecter, incredibly large footsteps to fill after Anthony Hopkins turned Lecter into one of the most popular movie villains of all time. He certainly gives it his best shot, acting proper and polite at times and menacing at other, but when he misses the mark, it seems like he's trying to channel Bela Lugosi's Dracula rather than Anthony Hopkins' Lecter. And no, despite the blood smears around the mouth, they're not the same thing. It's surprising that the producers didn't go with one of the many talented young British actors like Ben Whishaw, who ironically did a better job playing a French serial killer in "Perfume." However hard they try to put Gaspard in similar situations to Hopkins, his accent is the giveaway and few will believe that this is the young man that will grow up to be Hopkins.
If trying to pull of this impossible task weren't challenging enough, Ulliel also has to contend with his main antagonist being played by noted scenery-chewer like Rhys Ifans, who's even more despicable and hateful as the bad guy. (If this movie does well, will Ifans get his own prequel?) Gong Li's character barely seems necessary to the story, shoe-horned in trying to give Hannibal a love interest, and though she starts out as a femme fatale mentor, it doesn't take long for her to fall into the role of damsel in distress, a role not suitable for a talented actress like Ms. Gong.
The dialogue isn't great--a classic example of why it's often good to have a bonafide screenwriter adapt your book to the screen since they'll know what dialogue will sound corny when performed by actors. In that sense, it's even worse when you have actors like Ifans and Dominic West, playing an investigator also trying to bring war criminals to justice, doing foreign accents and foreign actors like Gong Li struggling through their English. Why a story that takes place in Lithuania and France has all of its characters speaking in English is a bit of a mystery, and subtitles at least in the flashback sequence would have done wonders for the film's credibility.
Problems aside, Peter Webber ("Girl With a Pearl Earring") does a decent job getting this prequel's visuals to fit in with previous films by Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott, but the pacing of the movie is off, being dull and flat at first before turning into a typical revenge thriller once Hannibal starts going after his sister's killers. There's very little tension or suspense involved with the latter part of the story and even a plot point meant to come as a shocker is telegraphed by Hannibal's feverish flashbacks that it comes more of a surprise to him than it will to anyone watching. Even Hannibal's gory revenge seems somewhat anti-climactic after so much build-up, and there's very little about this movie that makes you want to find out about the next 40 years in Lecter's life.
The Bottom Line:
It's a shame this prequel doesn't deliver on the promise of earlier Hannibal Lecter films, especially since Thomas Harris tries his best to set-up the framework for his infamous anti-hero. Diehard fans of the character might be interested enough in his backstory to forgive the many weaker moments, but it's doubtful anyone who had problems with "Hannibal" or "Red Dragon" will be as forgiving when Hopkins is taken out of the equation completely.