'Hannibal' prequel isn't rising to the top

MoviesEntertainmentGong LiDeathDino De LaurentiisSuperman (fictional character)Dominic West

In one of the few playful moments in Hannibal Rising, the evil genius with an advanced taste for humans dons a samurai mask (don't ask) that resembles the face guard Doctor Lecter wore to keep his fangs off innocent flesh in Silence of the Lambs. The image makes no sense, but it's kind of funny. Most of the movie makes too much sense and is no fun at all.

Hannibal Rising (an inadvertently uproarious title) suggests this serial-killer franchise is on its last legs. "Secret origin" stories used to appear in old-time comics and pulp series right after a character clicked with the public and fans were yearning to know more. Only recently have origin stories become ways to "reinvent" a hero or villain for new generations, as in the movies Batman Begins and Superman Returns.

But this movie doesn't reinvent Hannibal Lecter; it merely offers plodding explanations for a monster who was scarier when unexplained. And Lecter has never gone away since 1991's The Silence of the Lambs (or, for real aficionadoes, Michael Mann's inventive 1986 Manhunter), so it seems desperate for the Dino De Laurentiis company to have nudged author Thomas Harris into cooking up a back story now. This time, Harris wrote both the novel and the script, but he fails to fish anything new out of the various wells and storage and research centers that he's bloodied in his previous three books.

Harris goes back to the serial-killer warehouse of grisly notions. Where would such fiction be without the professions of medicine and taxidermy? Even the lynch-pin incident of amoral, Lithuanian makeshift soldiers starving as they hide from the Nazi and Red armies smacks of Magneto's origin in the X-Men movies.

Hannibal Rising isn't a terrible movie, but it is unnecessary. It's beautifully shot in a dark-wood way -- the director, Peter Webber, previously did Girl With a Pearl Earring -- and it's embarrassingly literal. Hannibal the Cannibal, it turns out, witnessed cannibalism as a young boy when those Lithuanian irregulars ate his sister. The atrocity imprinted cannibalism on his hard drive along with a desire for revenge.

This human-see, human-do psychology has none of the warped poetry of Harris' earlier forays into Grand Guignol, and it leads him into creative cul-de-sacs. The action shifts between the Lecter castle and hunting lodge in Lithuania, where Hannibal sees his parents killed and his sister become lunch, and France, where he hooks up with his aunt and then attends a Paris med school on a work program that involves intense inspection of cadavers. Little suspense is possible.

After all, we know Hannibal will survive, and the only two characters who rouse any sympathy are his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), and Inspector Popil (Dominic West), a French cop specializing in war crimes. The film could have generated black-comic tension as well as dread if it contained ingenious illustrations of Hannibal's compartmentalized mind. In the novel, a Jewish tutor instructs young Hannibal in treating the brain as a grand palace, so that a person can escape brute reality into many rooms filled with intellectual skills and learning. Later, in young adulthood, a psychiatrist explains that "the hemispheres of his brain may be acting independently. He follows several trains of thought at once, without distraction, and one of the trains is always for his own amusement."

But Harris' script dumbs down his own potboiler. All we get from it is that Hannibal is a quick study, especially when Lady Murasaki educates him in samurai lore. (She's named for the author of The Tale of Genji.) Even the potential triangle of Hannibal, his widowed aunt and Inspector Popil gets short shrift -- and it's too bad, because Gong Li has a romantic readiness equal to any actor today, West boasts a wounded Byronic edge and Gaspard Ulliel gives off the right haunted ambiguity as Hannibal before he turns into an overgrown and over-achieving feral child.

Neither Harris nor Ulliel licks the problem of varying Hannibal's many declarations that the bad guys ate his sister. Only once does the lead character get an intentional laugh, in a joke reminiscent of "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

If Our American Cousin was like Hannibal Rising, Mrs. Lincoln's answer would have been "Not much."

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