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Review: 'Hannibal' bites the big one

Story Highlights

• Tom Charity: Anthony Hopkins made Hannibal Lecter
• Thomas Harris' "Hannibal Rising" story very disappointing
• Film is a revenge tale that diminishes villain
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- It only took 16 minutes for Anthony Hopkins to sear the terrifying Hannibal Lecter into the minds of moviegoers in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs." "Silence" author Thomas Harris needed more than a decade to write the follow-up "Hannibal," and seven more to come up with "Hannibal Rising."

Lecter has not improved on further acquaintance.

Indeed, his influence on Mr. Harris' writing has been malign, to say the least. "The door to Dr. Hannibal Lecter's memory palace is in the darkness at the center of his mind," he writes in the prologue to the new novel, published last December. "This curious portal opens on immense and well-lit spaces, early baroque, and corridors and chambers rivaling in number those of the Topkapi Museum."

"Early baroque"? It's enough to make you wonder if someone's stuck a fork in the novelist's brain recently.

I wouldn't bring up the novel except that Harris also wrote the screenplay for "Hannibal Rising," the type of story movie executives like to call "an origin story." It's more commonly known as a "cash-in."

However, at least moviegoers are spared the worst of this florid prose, and the novel's thin "cinematic" plot has been trimmed still further to the barest bones. All the same, the strain of Old World snobbery that made cannibalism seem almost tasteful in "Hannibal" is even more virulent here, right from the outset, when Hannibal is revealed as a blue-blooded aristocrat, a Lithuanian count but for the inopportune meddling of Messrs. Stalin and Hitler.

Orphaned and stripped of his birthright, young Lecter emerges from World War II mute, bad and possibly mad. He's certainly dangerous to know. He is plagued with blurry bad dreams about the fate of his younger sister, Mischa, turned into a meal by starving militia.

With a hop, skip and a jump the tormented teen escapes to France to find his long-lost aunt, the erotically exotic Lady Murasaki (Gong Li -- or Li Gong, as her Hollywood agents insist -- but sorely wasted either way). She teaches him to wax a Japanese saber with oil of cloves, which comes in handy when a Vichy butcher throws a racist and anatomically improbable insult in her direction. Hannibal proves his devotion by carving up the lug and making off with his fish.

Inspector Popil (Dominic West) can smell his guilt, but the boy trumps the polygraph (in provincial France in the 1950s?). " 'e's vanilla," marvels the intuitive but totally ineffective gendarme -- no substitute for Clarice.

Taking up medicine (cooking might have been more apropos), Lecter perfects his slicing and dicing skills. He also self-administers a truth serum before bed, to sharpen up those nightmares. It is enough to put him on the trail of the brigands who ate baby sis, and who surely deserve no better in return.

What follows is a revenge saga, impure and simple, designed to elicit admiration and awe, but unconsciously diminishing one of cinema's great bogeymen.

Although he seems to have been cast on the strength of high, arched cheekbones that give his grin an insolent malevolence, French actor Gaspard Ulliel ("A Very Long Engagement") makes a fine young cannibal. But the idea that this sad, sadistic adolescent aesthete might grow into the man played by Hopkins never takes root for an instant.

"Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences," Lecter insisted in "The Silence of the Lambs." Hopkins made us believe in evil incarnate -- and that's what made him truly frightening.

Not only does the new movie reduce the serial killer to the sum of his tragic misfortunes, it also implies he'd never have survived but for a couple of lucky breaks. And what's more, that he deserved them!

British director Peter Webber gives it a patina of class -- presumably that's why they hired the guy who made "Girl with the Pearl Earring" -- but he can't stoke the excitement beyond a gentle simmer, allowing us ample time to ponder the eminently predictable revelations Harris has in store. Unfortunately, "Hannibal Rising" marks a new low for him. Try that with your fava beans.

"Hannibal Rising" is rated R and runs 117 minutes.


Hannibal

Gaspard Ulliel plays the young Hannibal Lecter in "Hannibal Rising."

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