Hanks, Howard Exorcize Some Demons With 'Angels'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Following up 2006's "The Da Vinci Code," "Angels & Demons" continues the adventures of globe-trotting symbologist Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). The no-nonsense academic gets brought into the thick of ticking-clock intrigue as a centuries-old secret society, the Illuminati, strikes out at the Catholic Church as the church's leadership gathers to name a new Pope. The most surprising thing about "Angels & Demons" is that director Ron Howard seems to have listened to the criticisms of "The Da Vinci Code" -- a fairly turgid, bloated blockbuster -- and made a few course corrections as Langdon's conspiracy mission continues. This time around, "Code" screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is aided by David Koepp in adapting Dan Brown's best-selling novel. The action takes place "24"-style, keeping the pace up over a matter of hours, not days. Finally, Hanks' distracting hockey-hair mullet from the first film has been shorn and tamed, so that Langdon no longer looks like the oldest front-line player for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And while it's easy to mock the first film for Hanks' hair, the fact is that "The Da Vinci Code" was a bit of a slog -- too much exposition, not enough run-and-gun action. (When Langdon refers to "The Da Vinci Code"'s adventures to a visitor from Rome, he mentions how he didn't think "that event had endeared me to the Vatican." He may as well have been talking about the audience.) The compressed time frame in "Angels & Demons" helps: The bad guys in the film have kidnapped four candidates for the papacy, and announced plans to kill them on the hour starting at 8 p.m., culminating in the midnight detonation of an antimatter bomb lifted from the lab of physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). This doesn't mean that there's less exposition in "Angels & Demons," but at least you get fed chunks of Catholic history and renaissance art factoids while the people spouting them are running to beat the clock.
Langdon and Vetra have to decipher the secret code that unlocks the stops on the "Path of Illumination," which points to the Illuminati's secret meeting place, which is where the bomb's hidden. Strip away all of the Catholic conspiracy hugger-mugger, and "Angels & Demons" plays out like a classic comic-book adventure, with Langdon as Batman, the Illuminati's sinister secret head as The Riddler and Vatican City subbing in for Gotham. A classic comic-book adventure with plenty of blood and gore, however: The Illuminati brand their victims, and there's plenty of other grisly business, like stabbings, shooting and people being burned alive, to give the movie the occasional shot of ultraviolence to keep things moving. "Angels & Demons" is a weird mix of holy, high-minded religious history and philosophy and grim, gory serial killing; think of it as "The Silence of the Lambs of Christ" and you've pretty much got it.
The supporting cast is made of excellent actors -- such excellent actors, in fact, that we can't quite figure out which of them will secretly be among the Illuminati's anti-Catholic rogue scientists and rationalists. Is it Armin Mueller-Stahl's cold Cardinal? Stellan Skarsgård's icy chief of the Swiss Guard? Can Langdon, Vetra and the previous Pope's right-hand man, Fr. Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor, with a Lucky Charms-elf "Oirish" accent that he should consider himself lucky we find charming), crack the code and save the Church and Rome from destruction?
There's a certain amount of theology and philosophy on deck in "Angels & Demons": Langdon keeps on being asked by various parties during his efforts if he believes in God, which makes you wish he'd say "Uh, there's a bomb set to go off; can we have this chat later?" But Howard shows the Catholic Church as an institution of fallible men -- some good, some evil; more well-intentioned than not -- and still conveys how Langdon's big, agnostic brain is linked to a good heart. And that stuff's all broken up by bloody business and gunplay, even if the script does bend over backward to have the unarmed Langdon and Vetra always be the first people in the room in the face of danger, or revolve around the world's worst hired killer. Howard even attempts some Hitchcock-style shots here, and while he fumbles, it's nice to see him at least try. The production design is mouth-wateringly sumptuous as well, the sort of thing that has you speed-dialing your travel agent as soon as the film's depiction of the glories of Rome is over. "Angels & Demons" earns a few sympathy points for being that much better than "The Da Vinci Code," but it also gets a nod for being a slick, speedy thriller that cuts between mystery and murder at an agreeable enough tempo to make two hours go by.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.