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‘Hannibal’ bites

Can you hear the cash register ringing?

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LECTER JR.: Fleshed out.
  • LECTER JR.: Fleshed out.

Long before author Thomas Harris published “Hannibal Rising,” I knew it was going to be a dud.

Years before, I had mucked through “Hannibal” — the unreadable novel Harris produced in the years following the blockbuster success of the film version of his book “Silence of the Lambs” — and later the unwatchable movie it spawned (pigs eating people! People eating other peoples’ brains! FBI agent Clarice Starling transformed into a cannibal/accomplice/hootchie by Dr. Lecter!). With both, it quickly became clear that Harris’ only thought was to bank as much as possible from his most famous creation.

Given that, I had even less hope for “Hannibal Rising,” the new film based on Harris’ novel and screenplay recounting Lecter’s “origin story.”

Yep, I was right.

Though “Rising” does offer some gripping early scenes of children caught in the midst of war, the rest is altogether mercenary and laughable — a film so itching to squeeze the last dime from the “Lambs” mystique that the orchestra recording the score probably included a cash register.

Soon after the titles roll, we’re introduced to young Hannibal Lecter (Aaron Thomas), the 8-year-old son of Lithuanian nobles. Driven from their ancestral castle by the approaching Nazis in 1944, the Lecters make a run for their summer home in the forest. With battle raging all around, one thing leads to another, some stuff gets blown up, and young Hannibal is soon left all alone with his toddler-age sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) in the bombed-out house.

Before they can freeze or starve to death, a gang of army deserters descends — mossy-toothed types, bent on looting the house. After they learn of Russian Army roadblocks nearby, however, the looters decide to ride it out. A blizzard blows in and, as food grows more and more scarce, they resolve to invite poor Mischa to dinner, and not as the guest of honor.

Fast forward several years later, and Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is a teen-age resident of a bleak Soviet orphanage. After finding a letter that provides him with the whereabouts of his uncle in France, Hannibal soon escapes. His uncle turns out to be dead, but Hannibal is taken in by his beautiful widow, the Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). A survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima with a thing for masks and sharp objects, Lady Murasaki is soon found to have more than a few bats loose in her own belfry.

After signing on at medical school (he works his way through by — wouldn’t you know it — dissecting corpses for use in medical experiments), Hannibal returns to his homeland to exact terrible revenge on those who chowed down on his sister, a pursuit that eventually leads him back to France, where he matches wits with Nuremburg prosecutor turned detective Pascal Popil (Dominic West).

Ulliel’s Hannibal is almost a Euro-trash impression of Anthony Hopkins version — all lowered head, breathy voice, and black turtleneck sweater. Look twice, and you might think you’re watching one of those “Sprockets” skits from a mid-1990s “Saturday Night Live” episode. How teen-age Hannibal loses his weird, not-quite-German accent in favor of middle-aged Hannibal’s refined British lilt is never explained. Nor is it explained how a guy who is so obviously a killer avoids being tossed in the slammer for the rest of his life, long before his days taunting/enticing Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs.”

I could go on, but I’ll just say this: Absurd, bloody, overlong and overblown, “Hannibal Rising” could have been a great yarn about the birth of genuine evil. As is, it only serves to dim the light thrown by “Silence of the Lambs” even more.

 

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