Sunday, February 11, 2007

REVIEW: Hannibal Rising

Minor spoilers.

I'm endlessly enamored of the seemingly natural way in which the horror genre innevitably evolves it's monsters into heroes, and thus watching the continued embodiment of this evolution in what has to be it's most extreme form by way of Hannibal Lecter has been the source of great amusement to me for some time. I'll defend forever my unabashed fondness for the lurid horror/high-camp of "Hannibal" for the way it leapt feet-first into the monster-to-hero metamorphosis; casting Thomas Harris' reccurring character of a super-genius/cannibal as a dashing vigilante, riding to the "rescue" of a lady in distress while battling the minions of a 007-ready supervillian with the 007-ready plot to feed the "hero" to a horde of mutant, man-eating pigs. This was more than just turning a monster into a hero, as had been done with the vampires and werewolves and gill-men of the past... "Hannibal" turned an unrepentant serial killer into a comic-book superhero! Preposterous, insane, a sad commentary on our times, yes... and I loved every moment of it.

But even I was not prepared to sit down for a showing of "Hannibal Rising," a feature-length exploration of what by now can only be referred to as Lecter's superhero "origin-story," and witness the sight of Young Hannibal (French actor Gaspard Ulliel) being trained in the fighting-arts of the Samurai. No, really. Hannibal Lecter: Master of Kung-Fu. In a practical sense, it does offer a quick explanation for some of the superhuman stealth abilities Lecter shows of later in the series, but onscreen one can't escape the notion that the winking metaphor may be getting stretched too far.

After all, ever since Frank Miller set pen to paper redefining Daredevil more than two decades ago, no self-respecting non-superpowered superhero can do his thing without an explicit background in the martial-arts. And when one considers that Hannibal will eventually use these skills to storm (I'm not making this up) the houseboat "fortress" of a ranting supervillian, well... yes. "Hannibal Rising" finally takes the gag too far. But it does so with gusto and guns-a-blazing, so I'm willing to roll with it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. To the point of things: "Rising" opens in the waning days of WWII, finding Hannibal as a boy of about 10 fleeing his aristocratic family's Lithuanian castle home to take shelter from the German shelling. Mom and Dad are deep-sixed quick, leaving Hannibal to care for his beloved baby sister Mischa. In short-order the children are set upon by a group of grimy wannabe-Nazis who, near-starving, opt to slake their hunger by cannibalizing little Mischa. Hannibal witnesses this gruesome act, but is powerless to prevent it; and we are meant to understand that it's this singular event that sets him inexorably down the path to become what we already know him as from the earlier films.

Escaping from a Soviet orphanage in his late-teens, Hannibal sets down in France with his last living relative, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) - his deceased uncle's Japanese wife - prodigies his way into medical school and promptly sets about his predictable goal: Track down Mischa's still-living killers, who've since made quite a name for themselves as an arms-dealing/slave-trading cartel, and take ironic retribution using his medical skill, Muarasaki's samurai instruction and a mounting interest in culinary refinement. Amidst all this he also finds time to hone his messin'-with-the-cops schtick opposite a war crimes inspector (Dominic West) who's after the same bad guys; and to engage in borderline-incestuous flirtation with Murasaki, because... well, because she's Gong Li.

This is all, undeniably, completely silly. And it gets dizzying when you try and remind yourself that once upon a time Lecter was just a recurring cameo in Thomas Harris' gory-yet-essentially-serious police-procedurals "Red Dragon" and "Silence of The Lambs," the later of which featured Anthony Hopkins in a scenery-chewing star turn that not only made his career but also turned "Hannibal the Cannibal" from supporting player to superstar, resulting in the whiplash tonal-shift of "Hannibal" and now "Rising," which effectively renders the two "middle chapters" as atypical footnotes in the continuing saga of the preeminent superhero of the Age of Amorality. But taken on it's own merits, and in the spirit of the brazen Grand Guignol additude it never stops to appologize for, it's also a hell of a lot of fun.

It must be said that Ulliel never quite loses his French accent as Young Hannibal, but his eerie pan-Euro hiss is more than fitting with the feature that likely figured more into his winning of the lead role: An uncanny ability to mimic the signature leering grin remembered from Hopkins' Lecter turns. He's also posessed of an impressively lithe physique and balletic grace, which comes in handy for a script that has Lecter slinking through the shadows of Paris like a cross between a ninja and a ghost, throttling the minions bad-guy boss Vladas Grutas (Rhys Ifans) and, yes, hacking up a foe with a samurai sword. And Dominic West impresses in the thankless role of the Police Inspector who figures out fairly quickly what Hannibal is but isn't quite as prescient on what he's going to become.

But the scene-stealer is Gong Li as the one woman who's unnervingly-deliberate fusion of maternal warmth and sexual heat might be the last best hope of melting Lecter's icy resolve. A living icon of Chinese cinema, she slips with dignity into her character even as she radiates a sense of being way too good for this kind of material - that rare actor who can elevate a B-movie by their presence rather than being diminished by the movie itself.

The bad guys are rotten to the core, the lady is a knockout, the whole thing looks like a lush period detective yarn and the "good guy" is a jack-of-all-trades flesh-eating psychopath. I can dig it.