Thursday, May 14, 2009

Film review: ‘Angels and Demons’ has less content, more action than ‘Da Vinci Code’

Tom Hanks works on behalf of the Vatican
in Angels and Demons.

By Hap Erstein

Although critically maligned, Ron Howard’s film version of The Da Vinci Code did pull in over $750 million worldwide, enough to get Hollywood interested in cranking out a sequel.

And they found it in author Dan Brown’s screen worthy earlier yarn, Angels and Demons, now turned into a follow-up adventure for Harvard-symbologist-cum-
action-sleuth Robert Langdon.

The Da Vinci Code’s crime, besides running up against monumental expectations, was that it was too slow moving and cerebral, in addition to offering a heretical faux-history of Christ’s personal life. Angels and Demons is less controversial, though it still had a few ideas worth pondering about the clash between science and faith, wrapped inside a compelling page-turner.

Howard seems to have a learned a few things from his Da Vinci Code experience, for his Angels and Demons jettisons most of the heady thoughts in favor of the race-against-the-clock scavenger-hunt-through-Rome narrative. He and his screenwriters, David Koepp (Spider-Man) and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), take more liberties with the source material, but they deliver a more enjoyable movie, sort of a thinking man’s summer popcorn picture that could hold its own against the Star Treks and Transformers.

Although he still manages to stub some Vatican toes, this time around Langdon (Tom Hanks with a shorter, better haircut) is working on the side of the church. He is summoned to Rome soon after the death of a pope to help track down a contemporary resurfacing of the centuries-old Illuminati. That group of rational thinkers takes credit for kidnapping four cardinals — the most likely candidates to become the next pope — and threatens to kill them off, one per hour, culminating in the detonation of a small quantity of man-made “anti-matter,” powerful enough to wreak havoc on Vatican City.

So Langdon, aided by comely Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, filling in for Da Vinci Code’s Audrey Tautou) speeds around Rome, trying to decipher clues allegedly left by such Illuminati luminaries as astronomer Galileo and sculptor Bernini long ago, to find the abducted cardinals and the anti-matter. Rome looks terrific and the movie is bound to boost its tourism, even though many of the interiors are actually studio sets or computerized mock-ups.

Hanks is his usual reliable self, pulling moviegoers into the story without much visible acting. Ewan McGregor is pivotal to the plot as the camerlengo, the former pope’s aide who stands in for him until the next head of the church is selected. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a wily old fox as the cardinal presiding over the papal election who might have ambitions of his own and Stellan Skarsgard is a frequent impediment to Langdon as the head of the Swiss Guard.

If you think too long about the timing of the chase, the implausibility of it all would implode the story as effectively as anti-matter might. Still, as summer blockbusters go, Angels and Demons is an above average action tale with at least a little content to chew on about the way the Catholic Church works.

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