May 13, 2009

Angels and Demons

Please, Mr. Hanks, we'll tell you everthing you want to know.
Just don't make us watch "Turner & Hooch" again.

Grade: C +

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgård, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and Armin Mueller-Stahl

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes

I am of two minds about using the Catholic Church and its austere, shadowy tenets as both literary and cinematic punching bags, first in the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and now in its follow-up, Angels and Demons. On the one hand, there is something discomforting about appropriating the religious beliefs held by billions around the globe as a bogeyman for mere pop entertainment.

However, the declaration “Hey, it’s only a movie!” has been rightly used to excuse a plethora of provocative films throughout cinema’s history. And, as long as the Catholic Church remains a powerful world influence adhering to clandestine, medieval traditions and doctrinaire, reactionary teachings, it must expect to be fodder for political activists, conspiratorial muckrakers, and sensationalistic fiction writers.

Angels and Demons is the latest such byproduct, in which Brown parlays the longstanding feud between religion and science as the basis for a pedantic, winding murder mystery. Although Brown’s book is actually a prequel to Da Vinci Code, director Ron Howard wisely postdates the narrative into a sequel. Tom Hanks returns as symbologist Robert Langdon, again called upon to uncover the dastardly plans of another occult society. This time, it is the ambigramatic Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era association purportedly looking to punish the Church for its past denunciation of science by destroying Vatican City and the College of Cardinals using a canister of stolen antimatter.

The bulk of the film, however, finds Langdon spouting one dollop of theological mumbo jumbo after another, each prompting another leg in what becomes an extended travelogue through the streets of Rome and the Universal Studios back lot. No staircase, corridor, or secret passageway goes unexplored as Langdon also tries to stop a series of related, Se7en-esque theme slayings against kidnapped cardinals belonging to the, er, Preferiti, after the Pope’s death and on the eve of the ensuing papal conclave. Going along for the ride is a comely Italian scientist (Ayelet Zurer), an irascible Vatican police commander (Skellan Skarsgård), and Patrick McKnee, the Holy See Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor, now permanently derailed off the track that once led toward headlining these sorts of blockbusters).

The existence of this sequel comes in the face of a first installment that made money despite underperforming at every critical level. Fans and critics complained and Howard listened, righting many of the wrongs that plagued his languid 2006 effort. Angels and Demons moves at a brisker pace, even at nearly 140 minutes, and is not as slavishly shackled to its literary source. And, thankfully, Hanks’ bouffant hairstyle has been tamped down. But, there is little difference between this and the claptrap of National Treasure aside from Hanks’ cachet and better set design.

Howard is a capable director, but he anchors himself in too safe a harbor with a prosaic script co-written by usual suspects Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp (only the absence of David Benioff prevents the formation of an unholy scriptwriting trinity). Just how lazy is it? Well, the film’s centerpiece suspense scene features Langdon escaping a locked, oxygen-deprived chamber in the Vatican archives by tipping a bookshelf through a Plexiglas wall, and the denouement hinges on the discovery of a secret video recording in which true villain unwittingly confesses his crimes (so, apparently, you don’t need to recount the Seven Catholic Sacraments to solve this whodunit).

When McKenna barges into the conclave and pleas for a religion-science détente, it sounds like a speech lifted from the end of Rocky IV. And, between belated, belabored goose chases, the depth of the screenplay’s “intrigue” extends only to guessing which characters will turn out to be good and evil. Not-so-much spoiler as simple-minded plot-device alert: They will be exactly the opposite of how they initially seem.

If Hanks’ career seems to emulate Jimmy Stewart’s, then this is another furrowed-brow chapter in the transition from his Frank Capra and screwball comedy beginnings into the more stolid but no less productive Alfred Hitchcock-Anthony Mann phase. Let’s hope for more films like Vertigo and The Naked Spur (or Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13) in Hanks’ future. Otherwise, we might have to settle for walk-on poetry readings on late-night TV talk shows sooner than we thought.

Neil Morris

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