In Lithuania during World War II, young Hannibal Lecter is driven mad when a gang of starving looters kill and eat his beloved sister. In France in the 1950s, Hannibal, a medical student, exacts a terrible revenge on the looters, and begins his career of serial murder and cannibalism.
It still burns producer Dino De Laurentiis that he didn’t make The Silence Of The Lambs. As the backer of Michael Mann’s Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, he had first refusal on any sequel featuring the character of Hannibal Lecter but, since the now-revered Manhunter was a flop on its first release, he passed and let Orion make Jonathan Demme’s Silence, with Anthony Hopkins stepping in as Lecter. Since then, De Laurentiis has gone back three times to the well, nagging Harris to come up with further Hannibal novels suitable for filming and, when the famously slow writer was unobliging, getting Brett Ratner to remake Manhunter, in the style of Jonathan Demme, as Red Dragon.
Since the endings of Harris’ book and Ridley Scott’s film Hannibal differ so widely that a sequel to one would be almost impossible to adapt into a sequel to the other, the only route left open to the franchise is the Smallville/Batman Begins/Young Sherlock Holmes approach. And, as a result, for the first time a Harris/Lecter property feels like a product — with the (slender) novel still in hardback as its film adaptation debuts. Harris, for the first time, scripts as well as providing the source material, as if the book were just an extended screen treatment. The film is even slimmer than the novel, pruning a major plot-thread about black-market art treasures that held the book’s story together, and sticking closely to the bodycount formula as Hannibal avenges himself on the human vermin who ate his sister.
Peter Webber (Girl With A Pearl Earring) may be a step up from Ratner in general artistic ambition — but he is given a lot less meat (as it were) to work with, and thus this feels like the lightest Lecter film to date. The novel is weaker than Harris’ previous efforts because it fails to give its charismatic sociopath a worthy antagonist (a French copper played by Dominic West is more Clouseau than Clarice) and lacks the high-tech police procedural and politics-of-crime business of Red Dragon and Silence. The film compounds this: its Eastern Front horrors are insufficiently grim and young Lecter’s first killings are typical vigilante stuff rather than the beginnings of master villainy.
Gong Li is welcome as Hannibals Japanese aunt-in-law/mentor, Gaspard Ulliel isnt a bad young Lecter and Webbers direction is intermittently classy but this is a footnote rather than a film.