1 star (out of four)
"I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti," is one of Hannibal Lecter's most chilling lines in 1991's "Silence of the Lambs," but in "Hannibal Rising," the latest prequel in the Lecter saga, it could serve as a punch line.
A sort-of combination of "Lambs," "Batman Begins" and "The Joy of Cooking," "Hannibal Rising" ostensibly dramatizes the atrocities that turned Hannibal Lecter from loving child to serial killer.But this film is larded up with so many food references that I'm undecided whether this story belongs in a film compendium or a recipe file.
It begins in Lithuania, near the end of World War II, when a 9-year-old Lecter and his younger sister, Mischa, witness their parents killed in the crossfire between Nazi and Russian forces. The children subsequently fall into the clutches of Lithuanian collaborators holed up in the family mountain home. It's winter, and food is scarce, and well, before very long, young Hannibal is the last Lecter standing.
Flash-forward eight years and a traumatized, mute Hannibal is back in the Lecter castle, now an orphanage. After dealing violently with a bully (I'll never again think of the phrase "stick a fork in it" in quite the same way), Hannibal is off to France in search of an uncle.
He's dead, curse the luck, but very much alive is his aunt, Lady Murasaki. Gong Li portrays Lecter's improbable relative, supplying some will-they-or-won't-they eroticism, embodying Hannibal's missing moral center and serving, in one silly martial-arts sequence, as Hannibal's samurai-sword sensei. After a practice session in which our young hero guts a butcher for tossing an obscene insult Lady Murasaki's way, Hannibal is off in search of the evildoers who carved up his sister.
He finds them with ridiculous ease (and thank God--this film tops the two-hour mark as it is) and dispatches them with the skill of a well-rounded sous chef--this one skewered and that one roasted, while a third is essentially a tartare. Whatever the preparation, Lecter allows himself a taste of each, always the same body part, making them literally tongue-in-cheek exercises.
Even the implacable policeman who pursues Lecter is named Inspector Popil, his name pronounced suspiciously the same as that of Ron Popeil, father of the slice-and-dice Veg-O-Matic (oh, what Hannibal could accomplish with one of those babies).
There is one disconcerting scene, in which one of Lecter's targets proves to be a chef (seriously) with a daughter the same age as Mischa. Lecter draws the child closer, as though contemplating a Little Debbie snack. But no, thank goodness, because the "Hannibal Rising" Lector kills only according to his perverse code of justice.
Gaspard Ulliel is physically perfect as Lecter, chewing through the scenery and several co-stars with chilling glee. He's certainly got the character's malevolence down; what's missing is the devilish charm that made Anthony Hopkins' Lecter such a riveting presence.
But that's what missing from the entire film. Lecter is presented as a soul-dead vigilante who reserves his carnage for the truly deserving; that's a long way from the Lecter of "Silence of the Lambs" who kills and tortures innocent and guilty alike.
I very much fear that the producers are saving that transformational morsel for yet another prequel.
Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references).