In Angels & Demons , director Ron Howard seems to be doing penance for the turgid The Da Vinci Code , his previous movie based on a Dan Brown religious thriller. Filled with a pounding score and choral oohs and ahs, whipping camera pans and a ticking onscreen clock, the new movie works doggedly to generate excitement. Though complete redemption of Brown's fiction may not be possible, Howard's new film at least represents an upgrade from a mortal to a venal movie sin.
With a plot that involves kidnapping papal candidates and an anti-matter bomb that will blow the Vatican to high heaven, the movie is just as preposterous as Da Vinci , but more disciplined. Screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp have pared the novel down to a serviceable summer action movie. The novel's convoluted plot has been transformed into a single-evening scavenger hunt through the crypts, naves and piazzas of Rome, until those old squabbling buddies, Science and Religion, finally emerge, hand-in-hand, from the rubble.
Though Angels & Demons was published before The Da Vinci Code , the movie version is offered as a plausible sequel. In an early scene, a Vatican emissary finds Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) swimming laps in a Cambridge indoor pool. Although there have been some residual bad feelings engendered by their previous dealings, the Vatican needs his help: Still reeling from the recent death of the pope, the church headquarters finds itself under attack from a mysterious old enemy.
The swimming pool, free of any baptismal associations, serves only as an opportunity for Hanks to show that he's far more fit and tanned than in the previous movie and has a much better hairdo, all portents of the more stream-lined film to come.
Langdon flies to Rome, where he meets his sidekick, a comely Italian physicist, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). Her scholarly qualifications apparently permit her to leave a few more buttons undone on her blouse than might be Vatican protocol but, given that the Catholic Church headquarters is about to be blown up, the oversight is forgivable.
The assailants claim to be a historically pro-science sect, the Illuminati, bent on revenge for the Church's persecution of their members in the 17th century. Four cardinals, leading candidates to become the new pope, have all been kidnapped and the perpetrators promise that one will be killed each hour leading up to midnight. At that point, the entire Vatican will be vaporized with a bomb made from anti-matter, stolen from the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) super-collider near Geneva.
Fortunately, in the tradition of superhero villains, the needlessly elaborate plan comes with a convenient system of clues that allows it to be thwarted. Langdon's initial concern is an infiltrator in the church's inner sanctum who seems to be in cahoots with the enemy. Could it be the cunning, lip-pursing Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl)? The contemptuous head of the Swiss Guard, Richter (Stellan Skarsgard)? Or perhaps the handsome young Camerlengo Patrick (Ewan McGregor), who has papal authority in the interim before a new pontiff is elected?
Acting is a fairly minimal concern here, with pros like Mueller-Stahl and Skarsgard bringing gravity to one-trait, tight-lipped characters. McGregor, employing an Irish accent, seems plausibly charming, while the beautiful Israeli actress Zurer ( Fugitive Pieces ) is in the awkward position of being a romantic sidekick without any suggestion of romance. Hanks has a few opportunities for sardonic one-liners to establish Langdon's skeptical attitude but he spends so much time rhyming off facts like a human encyclopedia, he essentially serves as the movie's built-in narrator.
Introductions are barely over when the race is on in what becomes a Roman attractions tour from the Vatican, to the Pantheon, to Castel Sant'Angelo to St. Peter's Square. Indoor scenes are shot with elegant dark shadows and rich reds; the outdoor scenes are filled with stomach-lurching, BourneIdentity- style camera movement in an effort to amp up the thrills, but fatigue soon sets in. There are just too many repetitious scenes in which Langdon alternately runs to a new site, spouts mouthfuls of exposition to his sidekicks Vetta and Vatican policeman Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino) and then races off to find the next clue or slaughtered cardinal. The only surprise here is the intensity of bloodiness and cruelty.
Angels & Demons finally does pull out of its rut in its final third, with a major plot twist and a spectacular sequence over the skies of Rome. The scene is one of those unexpected gifts that, in theological terms, could be thought of as a kind of grace. In a movie about such weighty matters as faith, torture and particle physics, who dares hope for a moment that is, even if unintentionally, so popcorn-spitting funny?