Lacking the wit to qualify as a sick joke, the ongoing saga of Hannibal Lecter has become the Grand Guignol equivalent of a shaggy-dog story, a rambling, directionless yarn whose promising beginnings have been eclipsed by its stubborn failure to end.
A self-styled "origin story" of the kind that normally explains why Peter Parker can cling to walls, "Hannibal Rising" completes Hannibal Lecter's evolution from blood-curdling bogyman to comic-book ghoul. The character has always had his satirical side, at least since Anthony Hopkins took the reins from Brian Cox, who played Lecter in 1986's "Manhunter." Part of the thrill of "The Silence of the Lambs" is watching Hopkins do a tap-dance on the edge of self-parody, suppressing a giggle as he sucks air through his teeth. Confined to the shadows and caged in his cell, he is concentrated evil doled out by the drop, a dash of spice added to an already-simmering brew.
Movie monsters flourish in the dark, but "Silence's" sequels have dragged Hannibal Lecter firmly into the spotlight. With steadily diminishing returns, "Hannibal" and "Red Dragon" elevated the man-eating gourmet from supporting act to star player, eroding the police-procedural framework that once kept him from roaming the screen at will. With "Hannibal Rising," all pretexts are dispensed with, all distractions tossed aside. Hannibal Lecter is ready for his close-up.
Clad in form-fitting turtlenecks like a Rive Gauche art student, Gaspard Ulliel plays the teenage Lecter as a petulant angel of vengeance, seeking retribution for his younger sister's death at the hands -- and, more to the point, teeth -- of a gang of Nazi collaborators led by Rhys Ifans' gleefully sadistic Grutas.
Although it begins in the muck of war-torn Lithuania, "Hannibal Rising" quickly decamps for postwar Paris, where Lecter studies anatomy while tracking down his sister's murderers. Drawing on his newly acquired talent for dissection, Lecter picks off his adversaries one by one, savoring the kill as well as the soft flesh of their cheeks.
Wedded firmly to Lecter's point of view, the movie savors them as well, lingering on the sound of a stout rope slowly removing a man's head from his body. Though it has nothing on the Rube Goldberg death machines of the "Saw" series, "Hannibal Rising" thrives on the same sick fascinations. Lecter was once a necessary evil indulged for the sake of catching killers. Now, he's the main event, the psychopath as tragic hero.
The blame for the character's devolution lies squarely with Thomas Harris, whose post-"Silence" novels betray an attempt to gin up his waning interest in the lucrative franchise. Bad as Harris' "Hannibal Rising" screenplay (his first) is, at least it's an improvement on his dreadful book, streamlining its convoluted action and discarding large chunks of unspeakable dialogue. Credit director Peter Webber for undercutting some the novel's baroque touches, although if all its excesses were excised, there'd be little left.
Retained, unfortunately, is Lecter's widowed aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), a preposterous compendium of Orientalist cliches whose main function is to dignify her nephew's bloody crusade. Although he's juxtaposed with a law-and-order Nazi hunter (Dominic West) who wants to send war criminals to the guillotine with heads intact, the movie leaves little doubt that Lecter is doing the Lord's work, even using the devil's methods.
Ulliel digs into his role with gusto, salaciously licking blood from his motorcycle gloves and flashing a demonic grin.
But the movie's conception of Lecter is too circumscribed, giving no hint of the bottomless bloodlust to come. He can't match the glee that pops into the eyes of Ifans' vulturous would-be Nazi as he shoots a disloyal SS captain in the head. Even in his own movie, Hannibal Lecter gets upstaged. It's enough to make you eat your heart out.
"Hannibal Rising." MPAA rating: R for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references. Running time: 2 hours. In general release.