Hannibal Rising (18)

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In the world of restaurants, bars and clubs, there exists a Rule of Downward Slippage describing the way that few new ventures stay at the top of the heap for long. A place will start out chic and exclusive; after a while, as business falls off, it starts letting in the likes of you and me; then before you know it, it's stridently touting for custom, and a once-discreet window ends up emblazoned with Day-Glo posters: Happy Hour! All-You-Can-Eat Buffet! Karaoke Night Friday!

Much the same has happened with the Dr Hannibal Lecter franchise: once the very last word in connoisseur cross-marketing, especially when Thomas Harris spent a decade writing his third volume Hannibal, thereby convincing the world (momentarily) that it had to be more than just an airport read. Now look how the bad doctor's career has slipped. Previously his exploits were filmed by the likes of Michael Mann and Jonathan Demme; then he fell on hard times with Hannibal and Red Dragon, directed by an off-peak Ridley Scott and Brett Ratner. And in the new Hannibal Rising, he's barely got his snarling head above the straight-to-DVD precipice. This film is so desperate it might as well be handing out flyers: Fava Beans Takeaway £3! Free Chianti Before 10pm!

Hannibal Rising is adapted by Harris himself from his own novel, published barely two months ago: presumably he has software that automatically converted the book into a script while he was writing it (or vice versa). The original mystique of Lecter was that his fathomless evil was highly sophisticated and utterly inexplicable. In Hannibal Rising, his blood lust is explained, psychologised and even justified. Hannibal is revealed as a troubled war child, surviving in the only way a damaged psyche will allow: he's depraved because he's deprived.

The film begins in Lithuania in 1944, as two adorable moppets, the boy Hannibal and his little sister Mischa, share a last idyllic moment with their parents in the grounds of Castle Lecter. Then the Nazis arrive with a raggle-taggle band of Lithuanian collaborators, headed by Grutus (Rhys Ifans), who clearly embodies all that's most vicious in Vilnius. "Kill the Jew! Bring me the peasant! Are you a Gypsy?" barks Ifans in a highly spiced accent, and you begin to suspect that he's angling to play the dad in a forthcoming prequel to Borat. Soon the snow is falling, the wolves are howling like Bela Lugosi's warm-up act, and the newly orphaned little Lecters are left to the tender mercies of Grutus' gang: snarling brutes who lick their chops at the sight of the children's aristocratic flesh. And who can blame them, for food is in short supply. "You think these are peppercorns? These are frozen maggots!" barks Grutus at a minion back from a food run - a line so chilling that it might have inspired Hannibal in later life to set up a catering concern with Heston Blumenthal.

A traumatised Hannibal, played eight years on by Gaspard Ulliel, treks to France to join his Japanese aunt Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), a woman of such exquisite Eastern sensibilities that she never goes anywhere unaccompanied by the soothing sound of a flute. The devoted youth is soon presenting her with the severed heads of boors who offend her sensibilities. "You didn't need to do this for me," she says sweetly. "Rudeness is epidemic, my lady," he replies - an old Lithuanian motto, I believe, translated via a French-Japanese phrasebook.

From then on, it's a predictably murky ragoût of mutilation and Peter Sellers French (a Dino de Laurentiis production under UK-Czech-Franco-Italian colours, this is what you might call a Euro blood-pudding). But it isn't actually that Gothic: once the action moves to France, it's all leather jackets, binoculars and derring-do. Hannibal, surprisingly a dab hand with explosives, comes out as a mixture of Spring-Heel'd Jack, 007 and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (he picks wild mushrooms to make one victim into a brochette, a detail only a French detective would truly appreciate).

Ulliel, as neatly combed as a philosophy student in an Eric Rohmer film, doesn't quite match Anthony Hopkins' baleful finesse: smirking like the cat that got the offal, he seems to be permanently wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta. Dominic West emerges with some honour as a dogged French inspector, manfully coughing out such répliques as, "If you kill in France, I will see your head in a bucket" and - one for the ages, I think - "Hannibal Lecter - what are you doing here?" (Carve it alongside a line from another misbegotten "early years" film, Max: "You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler.")

The one truly noteworthy feature of Hannibal Rising is the surreal combination of Rhys Ifans and the erstwhile goddess of Chinese art cinema, Gong Li: now that's got to win you top points in a competitive round of Six-Degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon. La divine Gong looks pretty rueful throughout, and her agent may well be next in line for decapitation, but DoP Ben Davis's camera loves her almost as much as Zhang Yimou's once did. I'm anything but a gore-hound, but despite the 18 certificate, I can't help feeling that Hannibal Rising is terribly tame stuff. Peter Webber, who directs with a brooding, murky earnestness, last made the decorous Vermeer fantasy Girl With a Pearl Earring, so you suspect his stomach wasn't really in it. This is decidedly bland guignol.