times when low expectations lead to films genuinely surprising you in a “Wow,
that wasn’t a bad as I thought it would be!” kind of way. And then, there are
times when the same expectations lead to films surprising you in a “Wow, this
is actually a pretty good flick!” kind of way. I’m pretty familiar with both of
those. What I have little experience with, however, is when low expectations
lead to a film genuinely surprising you in a “I knew this film was going to
suck, but it sucks for reasons I couldn’t have fathomed” sort of way.

And then
came Hannibal Rising. It’s a very
odd bird for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that it’s not a Hannibal
Lecter movie. I mean, the character is named “Hannibal Lecter,” but he seems to
have little to do with either the Anthony Hopkins or Brian Cox iterations of
the character. And it’s more than just this film’s star, Gaspard Ulliel, and
his particular take on the character, although that’s a problem that we’ll
get to a bit later. The entire movie seems to misunderstand the character
both in narrative and in characterization. In the former, he’s straitjacketed
(screw it, pun intended) by a Death Wish-lite storyline that’s
laughable and out of sync with every previous iteration of the character. In
the latter, he is presented almost simultaneously as a young boy in the process
of becoming Hannibal Lecter due to the circumstances of his life and a
fully-formed one-note psychopath whose “evil” glances at everyone around him
become cornier as the film wears on.

The plot
– such as it is – starts in a cottage in
Eastern Europe during World War II. Lecter, his
sister, his parents, a few minders are stationed there trying to hide out from
the incessant German Blitzkrieg. But during a standoff between a nearby Soviet
tank and a German fighter plane, everyone is killed except for Hannibal and his
sister, both small children. They are happened upon by a desperate and vicious
group of local thugs who find themselves marooned there without sustenance. But
wouldn’t you know it – cute lil’ Sis has a bad cough and may be terminally ill.
She gets added to the thugs’ menu and we’re soon fast-forwarded to several
years later, although this particular segment drags on for so long, you’d be
forgiven for wondering if you’d walked into the right film.

Now a
teen, Lecter is back in his family’s large, well-off home, but only because it’s been turned into an orphanage by the Soviet state. He’s considered
mute, but who would care to find out with the insidious leer permanently
plastered on Ulliel’s mug? Before the other 85 percent of the film’s events
have occurred, we’re already seeing him trying (and failing) to channel the
Anthony Hopkins’ version of Lecter. At the orphanage, Lecter is always running
afoul of the bullies, yet manages to consistently get the upper-hand on them,
thereby rendering this segment as dull and obligatory as any sequence in an
action movie when random street toughs approach the hero and get their asses
kicked. Most preposterous is the ending
to this segment, wherein
Hannibal finds some old postcards with a
rich uncle’s picture and address in
France, and simply decides to leave.

Not just the
orphanage, mind you.


And in a
two quick scenes, we see our penniless teen rogue walk out and go through a Soviet winter at will,
cross armed borders and dodge gunfire at will, and then simply show up at the house. Waiting for
him there is his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who welcomes him with both little
question and news that the uncle is dead, nurses him to full health, and decides the best course of action is….to train him in
the samurai arts.


Thus, we
spend the next act of the movie trapped in a Highlander sequel as directed by Zalman King, as Hannibal learns
swordfighting and mental acuity, although again, Ulliel carries himself through
this segment as though Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter were inside of him and he was
trying to shit him out, so it’s a bizarre tangent to say the least. But things
take a turn for the worse when a random local shop guy sexually harasses the
aunt, and Lecter takes the samurai sword…and the oaf’s head (alas, no
Quickening). Not content to leave it there, the film decides to explain away
why Lecter will start biting people’s cheeks off later in life and even adds a
visual gag where he briefly dons a Samurai mask that is a perfect clone of the
restraining mask
Hopkins wore so infamously in Silence of the Lambs. It wasn’t like
the character had a lot of mystique left after Red Dragon and Hannibal,
but he’s definitely demoted to a garden-variety antihero here.

murder puts Lecter in the sights of a local detective (Dominic West) who is unable
to successfully prosecute the lad. Nonetheless, Lecter leaves town and heads
back to his family cottage. There he finds the ID tags of the men who killed
and ate his sister, and then the revenge storyline kicks in and the film is on autopilot for its remainder as we wait for him to pick off the thugs one by one.

Ulliel is utterly incapable of even evoking
Hopkins’ iconic portrayal, much less holding
down an entire film on his own, a few stray glimmers of hope arrive in the form of the two
lead baddies, portrayed by Kevin McKidd and Rhys Ifans. McKidd’s guy is the man
who lived a brutal, evil past in a brutal, evil time, and now seems to be
genuinely trying to put it behind him. He’s now a family man with small children,
and McKidd gives the guy something of a heart that makes you care just enough
when he and Lecter have their final confrontation. By contrast, Ifans is pure
comic-book ham. He’s got one-liners to spare and seems one mustache-twirl short
of reveling in his pure eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil directly to the audience, which makes it so interesting that
he, not Lecter, briefly provides the unhinged sense of glee that made the
previous outings fun. He also adds the only real sense of meance as Lecter is perfectly neutered. It’s hard to see him as ever having been a monster when he’s depicted here as a predictable avenging angel who only lets people who personally did him wrong feel his wrath. He’s Dexter, devoid of the more attractive Miami setting or the sublime portrayal Michael C. Hall brings to that television series. Ulliel’s thick, unsteady accent and the character’s (as written) quiet nature here mean you get none of the talky, playful verve that made people ever care about him in the first place. Of course, it’s not that he has any sort of real foil like Clarice Starling or Will Graham to play off of anyway. We’re just left with a mostly internal figure that happens to be the foundation of a shit film that desperately needs a flamboyant figure to distract the audience from how bad the rest of this debacle is.

As for the others, Gong Li manages to look
smoking hot in the variety of evening wear she dons, but that’s all she’s
given. In the film’s final act, Lecter declares his romantic love for her just
before committing a particularly gruesome act that drivers her away from him
permanently, and we might be able to care if they had any sort of real
relationship, but it’s just not onscreen. All that’s there is a handful of
references to other, better Lecter movies and a cable-grade look, tone, and
storyline that degrades the franchise and character to an unacceptable low. If
you’re a fan of either, you can certainly disregard the Anakin-ization of
Lecter in this film and acknowledge it only as the money-grubbing waste of time
that it is. But it can’t feel good to champion a franchise where a Brett
Ratner-directed installment is hardly the worst one.

3 out of 10