Angels & Demons
Director : Ron Howard
Screenplay : David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman (based om the novel by Dan Brown)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Ewan McGregor (Camerlengo Patrick McKenna), Ayelet Zurer (Vittoria Vetra), Stellan Skarsgård (Commander Richter), Pierfrancesco Favino (Inspector Olivetti), Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Assassin), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Cardinal Strauss), Thure Lindhardt (Chartrand), David Pasquesi (Claudio Vincenzi), Cosimo Fusco (Father Simeon), Victor Alfieri (Lieutenant Valenti), Franklin Amobi (Cardinal Lamasse), Curt Lowens (Cardinal Ebner), Bob Yerkes (Cardinal Guidera)
It was a no-brainer that there would be some rumbling within Christian circles about Angels & Demons, the latest cinematic potboiler culled from a novel by Dan Brown, if only as requisite residue from the controversy over The Da Vinci Code (2006). Returning director Ron Howard and the film’s producers have certainly tried their best to stoke the fire (if controversy worked three years ago, why not now?), complaining about the Vatican not allowing them to shoot in their hallowed halls and mysterious power outages during production in Rome. From the other side of the aisle we’ve heard plenty of fiery objections from the Catholic League’s William Donohue, who not surprisingly labeled the film “anti-Catholic” even though the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called it “harmless entertainment.”
However, if there is a deserving controversy related to Angels & Demons, it has nothing to do with how the film treats the Catholic Church and everything to do with what it has done to Tom Hanks: Made him boring. Hanks, after all, can keep audiences riveted while spending 45 minutes talking to a painted volleyball, is one of the most dependable celebrity hosts of Saturday Night Live, and has back-to-back Oscars to prove just how beloved he is, yet as soon as he steps into the sleek academic loafers of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, all the life and charm and wit and good nature that has turned him into the second coming of Jimmy Stewart is immediately sucked out of him, leaving a talking shell who knows a great deal about ancient runes but is all but inert as a character. And, when you have a film as fundamentally ludicrous as Angels & Demons, you need a solid central character to grab onto. Langdon ain’t it.
The screenplay by David Koepp (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Akiva Goldsman (The Da Vinci Code) does some minor tinkering to rearrange the chronology of Brown’s novels and turn Angels & Demons into a sequel to The Da Vinci Code, rather than its predecessor. This is an obvious idea as it allows Langdon to refer to his earlier exploits chasing through ancient Paris to find the holy grail, but at the same time it undermines much of his character’s motivation since he is called on by the Vatican to help save the Church from attack by a resurrected secret society of scientists. Since Langdon successfully showed in The Da Vinci Code that the Catholic Church is nothing more than an enormous scam built on lies and misogyny, it doesn’t seem like he would be all that motivated to help save it.
But, no matter. We need a plot, and Angels & Demons is not in short supply. Langdon is summoned from his Harvard home by a Vatican emissary who brings him to Rome. The Pope has just died, leaving the young and progressive Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) in charge until the cardinals can elect a new Pope. However, the Church is being threatened by the Illuminati, the aforementioned secret society that, according to Brown’s history, formed hundreds of years ago to defend science and reason when the Catholic Church set about persecuting and murdering scientists who challenged conventional theological wisdom. Members of the Illuminati have stolen a vial of antimatter created at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva and are threatening to use it to blow up Vatican City, but not before ritualistically slaughtering all of the cardinals who are most likely to be elected the new Pope. Thus, Langdon, who is joined by physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), has multiple challenges ahead of him: discover the identity of the Illuminati assassin (who may be somehow connected to the church), find the vial of antimatter before it explodes at midnight, and also try to save as many cardinals as possible by figuring out where each will be killed (the Illuminati conveniently off a cardinal each hour on the hour, so the countdown to the big kablooey is marked by robed corpses). And, if that weren’t enough, Langdon’s dogged heroics are being constantly hampered by Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård), the head of the Swiss Guard who is less than pleased by the presence of an agnostic interloper.
To its credit, Angels & Demons is a better film than The Da Vinci Code--more mobile, fluid, and exciting, despite the deadening inertia of Hanks’s character. Although it’s only a scant 10 minute shorter, its brisker pace and heavier reliance on conventional action (more car chases, shoot-outs, and several climaxes piled one on top of the other) makes it feel much, much shorter. There are a few places where the film must grind to a halt for some lengthy exposition, but it’s more streamlined and therefore doesn’t constitute the bulk of the narrative. Howard also seems more assured in his direction, as well as his understanding that Langdon’s adventures are disposable pulp, not grandiose theological insight, which loosens him up behind the camera and lets him indulge in a little Grand Guignol nastiness. For what it’s worth, Angels & Demons isn’t a terrible use of 138 minutes, but one wonders how much more engrossing its nick-of-time shenanigans would have been had we cared for the central character ... or even found him remotely interesting.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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