'Hannibal Rising': The Doctor's Not In, By Kurt Loder

Can a Lecter movie without Anthony Hopkins be any good? At all?

If this picture were a little more ludicrous, just a shade more inane, it might be fun to watch. Unhappily, that is not the case. "Hannibal Rising," the latest greedy squeeze of the Dr. Lecter story, looks great, thanks to cinematographer Ben Davis and Oscar-winning production designer Allan Starski ("Schindler's List"). And director Peter Webber ("Girl With a Pearl Earring") provides some jazzy angles on the action, and he keeps things moving. But the screenplay, by Lecter auteur Thomas Harris (who apparently cooked up this script and his new novel of the same title at about the same time), is very silly from the start; and it's so dull you wish the old Anthony Hopkins Hannibal, who does not appear in this film, would drop by and liven things up in some suitably gruesome manner.

The movie is a prequel: It proposes to show us the awful events that turned Hannibal Lecter into the silky serial killer we came to adore 16 years ago in the movie version of Harris' "The Silence of the Lambs." But this is a fundamental violation of the character — as the good doctor himself once said, "Nothing happened to me. I happened." Even though we really don't need to know, though, the movie fills us in.

It begins in 1944, in war-torn Lithuania, where Nazi bombers are swooping down on Castle Lecter, the family manse. Little Hannibal's aristocratic parents are killed, and he and his even-littler sister, Mischa, are captured by a gang of local looters, led by a wildly depraved psychopath named Grutas (Rhys Ifans). It's cold, and the looters are hungry — very hungry. In a fit of drooling inspiration, they grab an axe, lead the adorable Mischa out the door, and before you know it — soup is served! This incident was already alluded to in the last installment of the Lecter saga, the dreadful "Hannibal." Knowing more about it is not especially illuminating, and focusing on it turns the rest of the movie into a revenge thriller of a gory but surprisingly un-thrilling sort.

Hannibal escapes the looters, and we find him eight years later in a Russian orphanage, where he's grown up into a French actor named Gaspard Ulliel (unpersuasive as the Hopkins Hannibal in embryo, despite an occasional appropriation of the older actor's behavioral tics in the role). Before long, he makes his way to France, to the country estate of an uncle, south of Paris. There he learns that the uncle has died, but that his Japanese widow is very pizzazzily alive. Her name is Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), and she graciously takes Hannibal in. (World-lit majors will recall that a Lady Murasaki was also the author of the thousand-year-old Japanese text called "The Tale of Genji," which among many other things concerns a young prince who falls for his stepmother. This bookworm showboating is more than usually strained and pointless.)

In the basement of her chateau, Lady Murasaki amusingly maintains a full-dress shrine to her ancestors, complete with flickering lanterns, an ornate samurai sword, and a towering suit of ancient armor — the helmet of which, inexplicably, features a mouth opening (not a desirable thing in battle, one would think) with three little bars vertically inset. This prefiguring of the iconic muzzle worn by Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs" is entirely nonsensical. But then what are we to make of all the wild boars waddling through this film? They're obviously intended to anticipate the voracious swine that were the most ridiculous plot element in "Hannibal"; they remain ridiculous.

Lady Murasaki trains Hannibal in martial arts, for no pertinent reason, and eventually starts coming on to him. (Hannibal backs away: "I promised my sister," he says, bafflingly.) After utilizing the samurai sword to carve up an obnoxious butcher (slicing off his cheeks to make tasty campfire kabobs), Hannibal moves with his patroness to Paris, where he enters medical school and starts boning up on anatomy. He also learns that he's being trailed by a suspicious cop, Inspector Popil (Dominic West), a character whose po-faced melancholy introduces a new level of monotony into every scene he enters. Before long, despite Lady Murasaki's flowery entreaties ("Hannibal, memory is a knife — it can hurt you"), he sets out in search of his sister's killers. Much bloodshed ensues, none of it as stylishly transgressive as the guard-clubbing scene in "The Silence of the Lambs." There is some frightening dialogue, though. (Bad guy to Hannibal: "What did I do to you?" Hannibal: "Apart from eating my sister?")

Most of the murderers turn out to be — I think I've got this right — headquartered on a river barge in Fontainebleau, along with a collection of battered girls they've kidnapped and now hold captive for sport and torment. (These are bad guys.) There's a wonderfully daffy scene here, in which we come upon the vile Grutas lolling in a soapy bath, with a bruised beauty crouching by the tub, carefully shaving his chest. (Rhys Ifans, an actor of beaming sweetness in other roles, is so deliciously rotten in this movie that you desperately wish he were in a different one.) Soon, the defiant Grutas and the vengeful young Lecter are facing off, and scriptwriter Harris — a fine crime novelist whose prose started hurtling off the rails with "Hannibal," the book, in 1999 — really outdoes himself:

Grutas: "Answer me this. Would you have fed me to your little sister because you loved her so much?"

Hannibal: "Yes."

Grutas: "There you have it. Love. I love myself as much."

Some of the dialogue in this movie is so barmy, I half-suspect that Ifans, at least, was playing it for laughs. If only the rest of the cast had been encouraged to follow his lead. It's hard to imagine how the Hannibal Lecter character could survive this dismal film, certainly not without the reinstatement of Anthony Hopkins. (And if Hopkins was up for "Hannibal" six years ago, he might still be game for anything to which a paycheck is attached.) But what could possibly follow "Hannibal Rising"? "Hannibal Stretching"? "Hannibal Yawning"? "Hannibal Meets the Wolfman"? Stay tuned, I'm afraid.

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