by Mel Valentin
Sandwiched between "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Star Trek" on one side and "Terminator: Salvation" and "Up" on the other, "Angels & Demons" arrives in movie theaters at an inauspicious time for middlebrow entertainment. The sequel (actually a rewritten prequel) to 2006’s "The Da Vinci Code," the middling, muddled adaptation of Dan Brown’s international bestseller, "Angels & Demons," again directed by Ron Howard ("Frost/Nixon," "Cinderella Man," "The Missing," "The Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13," "Backdraft"), is a marginal improvement over its predecessor. At two hours and twenty minutes, "Angels & Demons" is still too long and self-indulgent, but Howard, apparently recognizing where he erred with "The Da Vinci Code," spends less time on drawn-out history lessons and expository dialogue and more on the action and spectacle that moviegoers crave (or, at least, studio executives assume they crave).Angels & Demons turns on the theft of a container containing anti-matter from the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland and the kidnapping of the four Roman Catholic cardinals in Vatican City favored to succeed the recently deceased pope. Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the papal representative charged with supervising the conclave, refuses to postpone the election, even after the kidnapper contacts them and informs them that he’ll kill a kidnapped cardinal every hour beginning at eight p.m. He’s also hidden the anti-matter container somewhere in Vatican City. It’ll go off at midnight. The kidnapper also claims membership in the Illuminati (“Enlightened Ones”), an extinct secret society created in Rome in the 15th century as a counterweight to the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on science and other secular issues. Declared heretics, the Illuminati were hunted down and eliminated.
"Not even a slimmed-down, better-coifed Hanks can save..."
With less than a few hours to find the missing cardinals and the anti-matter container, the Catholic Church turns to Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), the Harvard professor of Symbology, who led the hunt for The Da Vinci Code in the previous film. Langdon travels to Rome with the expectation that he’ll receive access to the Vatican’s prized archives, including a rare monograph by Galileo. With the help of the Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), the late pope’s chamberlain, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a CERN physicist who worked on collecting anti-matter (and obligatory romantic interest), Inspector Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino), an Italian police officer, and Richter (Stellan Skarsgård), the head of the Swiss Guards tasked with protecting the pontiff. Langdon’s investigation leads to the first of many clues scattered around, in, and beneath Vatican City left by the Illuminati. Langdon, however, always seems one step behind the assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who, in turn, learns of Langdon’s involvement (but unrealistically lets him live several times when they cross paths).
Howard, working from a script by David Koepp (Ghost Town, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War of the Worlds, Spider-Man, Panic Room, Stir of Echoes, The Lost World, Jurassic Park) and Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend, Cinderella Man, I, Robot, A Beautiful Mind, The Client), works hard to super-charge Angels & Demons with tension and suspense, but all of it feels contrived. Howard, Koepp, and Goldsman take it as a given that audiences will care about the missing cardinals or the ticking anti-matter bomb. Led by Cardinal Strauss, the staunchly traditional cardinals refuse to leave the Vatican before they elect a new pope, risking themselves and the throngs of fellow believers amassed in St. Peter’s Square in the process. They’re trapped by tradition, not by circumstance or the actions of the assassin and the other Illuminati. Langdon’s initial motivation is just as superficial, his agnosticism one of many plot points buried in an avalanche of historical minutiae, his “romance” with Vittoria perfunctory and underwritten.
Brown’s depiction of the Roman Catholic Church, with its actual centuries-long history of religious persecution of heretics and splinter groups, not surprisingly caused a minor stir on publication nine years ago and now again with the release of the adaptation, but a close look at Angels & Demons suggests that the criticism is misguided. In Brown’s hands, the Catholic Church is nothing more than another secret society with arcane rites and rituals (which he also admires). It wouldn’t take much effort to equate the Catholic Church and its council of cardinals with George Lucas’ Jedi Knights (and Jedi Council) and the Illuminati as the vengeful Dark Sith Lords. But does any of this matter? No, not really. As a travelogue of Rome’s historical treasures, Angels & Demons hits multiple sweet spots for the curious-minded. As a mystery-thriller supposedly centered on the conflict between religion and science, Angels & Demons betrays Howard and his producer’s desire to minimize the risk of a backlash from the Catholic Church and its supporters.As a director, Howard seems comfortable making mainstream, middlebrow entertainment for the masses (not the Masses). Safe subjects, usually based on adaptations from other mediums like bestselling novels or stage plays, are combined with glossy production values, but nothing else. Howard's filmmaking style is a non-style, or rather, the current Hollywood style of quick, constant camera movement, quick cuts, CGI-enhanced crane shots (and backgrounds), and short, punchy scenes. Howard handles the overwrought exposition "West Wing"]-style, with Langdon (a trimmed down Hanks kitted out with a sleeker, more aerodynamic haircut) and the other characters walking and talking, jogging and talking, but only rarely (at moments of "high" tension) running and talking their way through clues, puzzles, and other travelogue-inspired mysteries tied to the Illuminati.
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originally posted: 05/15/09 03:08:26