Ron Howard and crew somehow managed to take “The Da Vinci Code,” one of the most entertaining and controversial works of the past generation, and turn it into a lukewarm, flaccid experience that only served to make millions re-read Dan Brown’s book to get the bad taste out of their mouths. Luckily though, it appears that Howard is learning from his mistakes, and “Angels and Demons” ranks much better than its ‘Da Vinci Code’ predecessor, though it could be nothing more than a stupid action flick.
The inappropriately casted Tom Hanks reprises his role as a Harvard professor, Robert Langdon, called into Rome to decipher iconography dealing with the ancient conflict between the Vatican and the Illuminati. The secret society seems to have gotten an edge over its religious rivals this time around, by snagging an anti-matter vial from a Geneva research facility and hiding it behind a mountain of clues, setting it to explode at midnight that night.
Not only that, but the film opens with the death of the Pope, and the kidnapping of the four most eligible to take his place, all set to be executed as the deadline approaches. Why not just blow up the building and be done with it? We have no time to logically debase this movie because there’s a bomb! Surprisingly, “Angels and Demons” stumbles into actual pacing and rhythm this time, the constant time-limit threat wonderfully underscoring its action, creating a brisk and unrelenting speed while excusing bouts of historic exposition and explanation.
The film sports a healthy supporting cast: Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo, Patrick McKenna as leader of the Vatican during the interim of a Pope election and Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter, head of the Swiss Guard (Vatican’s protective unit). These engrossing performances make every scene something that rewards anticipation. However, not everyone gets a good shake at characterization.
Ayelet Zurer’s Vittoria Vetra, daughter of a scientist murdered in the anti-matter theft and Langdon’s puzzle-solving companion, is victim to a lazy screenwriter. Those who have not read the novel will see her only as an interchangeable partner to Langdon, reinforcing solutions that he had already discovered and talking back in heated chase scene conversations. Far from being an equal and supportive partnership, the duo appear more in line with the “couple-caper” television shows of the 1960s or ’70s, a gender-neutral “Charlie’s Angels,” only with one member of the team being more useless than usual.
The least entertaining aspect of the film is still Tom Hanks, who turns in a respectable and safe performance as someone completely different than his character. Nice guy Hanks never fits into Langdon’s intellect, and all of the aesthetic changes Howard has added to the character, atop the ones he already made in ‘Da Vinci,’ have done nothing to improve that fact.
Luckily, even though it’s a stupid film, Howard’s talent for location shoots upgrades it to a pretty-looking stupid film. Although cast and crew were denied filming rights in the holier Roman locations (surprise, surprise), “Angels and Demons” uses what it has to amazing effect; the buildings that double for the Vatican and its library sparkle with the appropriate piety and gaudiness. Hans Zimmer’s lush score (bolstered by beautiful pieces by violinist Joshua Bell) and some feisty, hand-held camera-work round off the visual package as something definitely in line to be the best design work of the summer.
But without the dark and controversial material truly embraced, the film barely stands as a functional popcorn film. You don’t have to be a symbolist to recognize that there was something much better here before Howard got to it.