While I loved Brian Cox’s take on the character in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (and still feel that it is the most faithful to Thomas Harris’ creation), it was Anthony Hopkins brilliant turn as the character that took what was essentially little more than a supporting character in the Harris novel, “Red Dragon”, and turned him into a sort of Freddy Krueger for the intellectual set; smart, suave, sexy – this was a serial killer you could bring home to your mother, provided you didn’t mind frying up her liver afterward. Hopkins so defines this character that one wouldn’t think it possible to make another Hannibal Lecter film without him, but “Hannibal Rising” proves that…well, you can’t. But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.
Well, it is, but it isn’t.
Let me explain.
I’d heard so many bad things about Thomas Harris’ novelization of Hannibal Rising that I avoided the film altogether during its theatrical run (critics weren’t any kinder to the film). I’m sort of glad I didn’t see it in theaters because, back then, I’d have been bound to walk out disappointed as, like most people, I’d have been expecting a Hannibal Lecter movie and not the sort of movie Hannibal Rising turned out to be. The thing is this; Hannibal Rising is an origin story, meant to show us how Lecter became…well, Lecter – it shouldn’t feel like the sort of Hannibal movie we’re used to because, chronologically speaking, that Hannibal doesn’t even exist yet.
Hannibal Rising introduces us to Hannibal as a young boy in the final months of World War 2. After his parents are killed, Hannibal is left to care for his sister, Mischa, in a remote cabin during the harsh Romanian winter. When a group of opportunistic Nazi sympathizer stumble upon the cabin, their initial plan is to use the children as a front in case they are discovered by the Russian army, but, as supplies run out and the winter woods yields no food, they resort to cannibalism, starting with Hannibal’s baby sister. This serves as the catalyst for what is ultimately a revenge flick in which an adult Hannibal (played with dead-eyed perfection by Gaspard Ulliel) seeks out those responsible for his sister’s death, and gives them their just desserts (insert rim shot).
I can see how fans weaned on the grisly adventures of Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter would be disappointed by Hannibal Rising. The character presented here is essentially Hannibal on training wheels; he’s not nearly as worldly, suave, or intimidating as the character we’ve come to know and love, but, then again, he shouldn’t be. Lecter’s a neophyte, here, new to the killing, new to the deception. The skills he used to charm Clarice Starling were years in the making, and decades ahead of this younger, sloppier Hannibal. I can also see how fans of the series would be thrown off by the fact that this film has more in common with an espionage thriller than a serial killer flick, but I appreciated the departure from the norm, here, as that was what won me over in the end.
While this is by no means a classic on par with “The Silence of the Lambs” or, what is in my opinion the best film of the series, Ridley Scott’s underrated “Hannibal”, Hannibal Rising is not nearly as bad as I was led to believe. The film looks fantastic, with its moody period locales, stylized visuals, and noir vibe. This film has the look and feel of a classic 40’s B-flick, albeit with a decidedly bigger budget (as well as a fair amount of gore and profanity). If the script and supporting performances were nearly as polished then this could have been one hell of a film. Instead, though, we are given a few cigar store Indian caliber performances from Dominic West and Gong Li, neither of which’s cause is helped by some of the groan-inducing dialogue they’re forced to spew. Still, though, even the bad dialogue seems to fit, here, as it all feels so gloriously retro.
My only other major gripe with the film is the fact that all of Lecter’s victims here deserved their fate, and the notorious serial killer (who we all know would later go on to kill and devour countless innocents) is given a nobility makeover here that should have been offset with some semblance of sadism.
I won't say Hannibal Rising was unfairly maligned, because it deserved at least a little of the criticism it's had lobbed its way, but, while the writing is subpar and some of the performances are cringe worthy, I still had a great time with this film, and I think that folks like me - those who have heard all of the negative buzz but haven't yet seen the film themselves - will probably be just as puzzled as to why this film got so heavily bashed as I was.