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Angels & Demons

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/15/09 00:00:00

"The antimatter doesn't matter."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The big problem with these Dan Brown movies - and I say movies because I haven’t read the books, yet had to sit through two of Ron Howard’s dour adaptations - isn’t that the facts are faulty. After all, if we’re willing to accept “Star Trek” having no clue how black holes work, we should be willing to accept “Angels & Demons” having no clue how antimatter works.

No, the problem with these Dan Brown movies is that they’re about a hero that runs around while things happen around him, as opposed to a hero who does things. In “The Da Vinci Code” (a film so dull I could only recall Tom Hanks’ mullet and had to check my old review to jumpstart the rest of my memory), “symbologist” Robert Langdon is hired to solve a mystery but winds up moping around Europe while people just tell him the answers. In “Angels & Demons,” he’s hired to follow clues leading to four kidnapped cardinals (abducted, I assume, by the Riddler), and while this time he actually solves the puzzles, he’s always arriving too late to save anyone, probably because he never seems to be in a hurry to do anything, never mind that pesky deadline.

In fact, there’s one great scene in Howard’s new adaptation of “Angels,” and not coincidentally, it’s the only scene where Hanks’ Langdon actually does something - namely, he gets to one of the cardinals with time to spare, leading to a genuinely thrilling rescue attempt. It’s a tense, crackling piece of moviemaking. And then it floats away, and we’re back to Dr. Dullsville and his Meandering Mysteries.

What we’re left with is a pile of sharp, slick filmmaking that’s wasted on a snoozer of a story. The screenplay is adapted by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, neither of whom can breathe life into Brown’s ridiculous potboiler. The plot involves the return of the secret society the Illuminati, who have stolen a canister of antimatter - created so scientists could study the so-called “God particle” - and now they’re threatening to kill off the four top candidates to replace the recently deceased Pope, then blow up all of Vatican City, all in about five hours; Langdon realizes clues to their whereabouts can be found in ancient Vatican texts and Italian sculptures, although this time there’s less about decoding hidden symbols and more about following the directions of a statue’s pointing finger.

None of it really amounts to much of anything, and one gets the idea that Brown overheard the phrase “God particle” one night on the news, watched a History Channel special on the Illuminati, did some light Googling, and presto, had an idea for a thriller pitting science against religion. “Angels & Demons” is a particularly numbskulled affair, when you get right down to it.

So it doesn’t help much that once again, Howard and Hanks are plowing through the material without a single wink. (At least the similarly themed and similarly dopey “National Treasure” flicks have the decency to know when to be breezy and fun.) This is a dreary slog of a downer, so much so that its few lighter moments feel welcome yet too out of place. But there’s no energy in the suspense, either, since everyone rarely feels in a rush to get anywhere (except for Hans Zimmer’s obnoxiously aggressive musical score, which pounds the tension into you with a sledgehammer).

With all this sluggishness and lack of vibrancy, all we’re left with is ridiculousness, which Brown served up in spades and Howard and company are pleased to reheat for us. The film is all dopey plot twists and revelations, and the more Howard tries to take them seriously, the sillier they come across. (Again I turn to my wife, who read the books; she informs me that one major guffaw-inducer in the book involving Action Pope! with Infallibility Grip! has been toned down, but only by a bit.)

Koepp and Goldsman, veteran scripters both, seem to have given up on this project, loading their screenplay with dialogue that repeats information ad nauseam, reminding viewers of key plot points, informing them of obvious facts. Hanks is reduced to playing Dr. Exposition, reiterating information to a laughable degree; I was reminded frequently of Robert Cornthwaite’s movie-within-the-movie character in “Matinee,” who made a habit of stopping his dialogue to explain that, say, “accelerated” means “speeded up.”

The story tries to get us excited about the dark mysteries of the Catholic church, a great movie tradition where ancient tradition is used to hide dangerous conspiracy. But, as with “The Da Vinci Code,” it’s all undercooked nonsense, a handful of thinly researched Cliff’s Notes intended to give the story a whiff of authenticity, barely effective. This time, the plot hinges mainly on asking little more of us than “guess which slimy supporting character is the bad guy.” The conspiracy is dull, the characters duller, and attempts to punctuate such dullness with bursts of horrific violence (the MPAA’s PG-13 is, once again, a total joke) or scenery-chewing monologues (Ewan MacGregor appears as a priest who speechifies in one scene against science) are never able to get things moving.

For a movie based entirely around a beat-the-clock goal, there’s no real momentum here. There‘s a lot of yelling about having to be somewhere by some time, but there’s no real urgency, no real movement, and definitely no real thrills.

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