Now Hannibal Begins
For a long time I didn't quite understand the appeal of the Hannibal Lecter character. Why was a fictional serial killer so popular, even if he also demonstrated sophistication and came across as masterful at psychology? Plenty of reading and several movies later, I'm still not entirely sure, but at least I realize now that people enjoy the thrill of being in his company and I understand Hannibal often killed people he either considered enemies or otherwise somehow deserved it for possessing wicked traits. In other words, his actions can be justified by our ids living vicariously through him -- the way he eviscerates his victims becomes the metaphor for how we'd like to get back at our own real-life bullies.
At least that's the kind of character he's certainly become in Hannibal Rising, the fourth Hannibal movie (fifth if you count Manhunter), this one going back to the beginning, as is fashionable to do these days, to find out what made him the way he is. And though here he's getting back at a group of war criminals, the leader of which is particularly evil, this vicarious fantasy aspect remains almost all he has left going for him. Outside of his personal quest, Hannibal isn't explored much at all.
To put it simply, it only takes the beginning of the movie to quickly show how Hannibal becomes who he is. He is traumatized when he watches his parents get slain in a back alley during a mugging -- oh, wait, that's Batman. His life takes its path after a man he could've stopped earlier ends up killing his uncle -- no, sorry, that's Spider-Man. But his given story isn't really much more complicated than such comic book origins -- it involves the childhood experience of losing his sister in a sadly grotesque way, thanks to a band of desperate World War II looters -- and the character himself has evolved to be a kind of superhero. After the traumatic incident, we skip ahead to the movie's present, when he's a young man (Gaspard Ulliel, acquitting himself decently in Anthony Hopkins's shoes), and he's already quite a deadly human being.
Hannibal apparently didn't require much development to become a psychopath. Starting out in an orphanage, he foils the bullies there and escapes without a scratch -- physical or mental. Later, he plans his first kill against another bully, and shows perfection in his planning and, ahem, execution. We aren't really exposed to how he turned into such a skilled creature (the most we get are a few fencing training sequences with his aunt and new caretaker, Lady Murasaki, played by the ageless Gong Li); we just take it at face value that, after his childhood trauma, he immediately turned into this cold, efficient murder mastermind.
Most of the movie is spent watching Hannibal systematically, one-by-one, hunt down the perpetrators of the original crime, in the name of his sister. He's practically unstoppable -- only Lady Murasaki and a Paris inspector (Dominic West) stand as moral hurdles, but they're hardly effective. As it went along, I still wondered what kind of a character he was -- he seemed to revel being simplistic, two-dimensional, and thrived at being unchallenged. Watching the movie amounted to watching him go through the motions; no one could really be counted as a true adversary, especially not himself. No external conflict, no internal conflict -- they call him a "monster" because he's rather inhumanly unemotional, and although that can be fascinating, is it all that much fun to watch?
It may have also have been a mistake to limit Hannibal Lecter's dialogue in this movie, for his calculating, eloquent wit made up a large part of the character's appeal in previous films. In Hannibal Rising, we see the honing of his murderous modus operandi, but not much in the way of his intellectual growth. Thus, the character here lives on, but he only does mostly what you already expect him to do. That might be enough to give viewers some vicarious thrills, but it's a little disconcerting for me to see Hannibal Lecter becoming less dimensional with each new movie.
(Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and rated "R" for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.