'Hannibal Rising' — Through the past, darkly 

"Hannibal Rising" marks the fifth installment in the ongoing saga of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the twisted, flesh-eating genius personified so memorably by Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs." Let’s hope it’s the last.

Lecter remains one of the most charismatic anti-heroes in recent memory, a seemingly contradictory mix of fine manners, uncommon intellect and a reptilian indifference to human life. But here, novelist and first-time screenwriter Thomas Harris goes to the well once too often. A glimpse into the childhood trauma that produced one of the most fascinating serial killers in screen history might have provided Lecter with the satisfying back story that fans have desired, but "Hannibal Rising" isn’t a serious character exploration so much as a pedestrian thriller with artistic pretensions.

Stepping into the role more or less owned by Hopkins, Gaspard Ulliel has all the superficial markings of a young Lecter — the slicked-back hair and the devilish glint in his eye, with a soothing deadpan that effectively masks his sinister intentions. Yet this Lecter lacks bite, even as he chomps his way through the men who slaughtered his baby sister, Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska). Rather than infusing the character with new ideas, Ulliel delivers a faithful impression that serves only to accentuate his own shortcomings. His Lecter is a gleeful sadist, but short on intrigue.

And that is the biggest problem with "Hannibal Rising." Although Harris adequately explains how Lecter came to be the suave, sophisticated cannibal who would later toy seductively with Clarice Starling from the confines of his maximum-security cell, he unwittingly strips him of mystery, reducing him to a shell of his once-menacing self.

It should have been enough to appreciate Lecter as a monster capable, for whatever reason, of devouring his victim’s liver with a nice Chianti or vintage Bordeaux. We now know that he was driven to madness by a party ofWorld War II Nazis who dined on his sister rather than risk capture by Stalin’s army. In wholly predictable fashion, he tracks them down and exacts his pounds of flesh.

Yet there is no thrill in the hunt. Perhaps if there were some hint of the diabolical imagination that produced "Manhunter" and "Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal Rising" might have proved a worthwhile, if conceptually flawed, prequel. Instead, it’s a ponderous geek show in which Lecter’s victims, one by one, are devoured by the psychopath who comes to kill and stays for dinner.

Hannibal Rising *

Starring Gaspard Ulliel, Rhys Ifans, Gong Li, Dominic West, Aaron Thomas, Kevin McKidd, Richard Brake

Written by Thomas Harris

Directed by Peter Webber

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 57 minutes

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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