Angels & Demons Movie Review

Slow and steady doesn't always win the race.

Take Ron Howard's adaptations of Dan Brown's riveting bestsellers. Both The Da Vinci Code and its sequel, Angels & Demons, are competently made, commendably acted historical thrillers set against picturesque international backdrops. Yet for some reason, neither comes close to duplicating the urgent pacing of Brown's crackling source material.

It annoys me to report this because, pacing aside, Angels is a good film that finds a better balance between exposition and action than its predecessor. (Too much talk turned Howard's Da Vinci into a snoozer.)

Tom Hanks -- hair smartly cropped this time, eliminating unnecessary distractions -- returns as Harvard professor Robert Langdon, an expert in religious symbols who's recruited by Vatican officials to help them prevent an attack on the Catholic Church. Langdon's opposition is the Illuminati, a secret society of scientific thinkers who seek vengeance against the Church for centuries-old persecutions.

On the eve of a papal conclave to select a new pope, the Illuminati have kidnapped the four Preferiti -- or papal successors -- and planted a volatile amount of combustible antimatter somewhere in Vatican City. With hours to spare before the antimatter is detonated, Langdon recruits sexy scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) on a last-ditch mission to trace a rumored Path of Illumination across Rome, apprehend the Illuminati's hired assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), retrieve the kidnapped bishops, and defuse the bomb.

Brown's novels, by design, unfurl like a full season of 24, swapping political deception for religion-versus-science conspiracies. Though his Angels actually preceded Da Vinci, both utilize the same storytelling method of cramming ancient mythology and artistic history into rollercoaster chapters that hinge on impossibly breathtaking cliffhangers. Pick up one of Brown's Langdon adventures and you probably won't put it down until you're finished.

So why does it feel like it takes longer to sit through Howard's adaptations than it does to read the books themselves?

Tone is an issue. Brown's stories are implausible campfire yarns peppered with ticking time bombs (made out of antimatter), daring fights, dueling plot twists, mysterious clues hidden in cultural artifacts, and other giddy clichés. They are exhilarating, but intentionally campy.

Howard continues to treat Brown's material as sacred text, however, resulting in a faithful and serious adaptation of Angels that removes all the fun. Where Brown's book throws caution to the wind as it drags readers along on its wild ride, Howard's film dutifully shuttles us from Point A to B, maintaining the posted speed limit while constantly checking its mirrors and asking us if our seat belts are securely fastened. And though Angels isn't half as inflammatory as Da Vinci, a needless change made by co-screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman regarding Ewan McGregor's character, Carmerlengo Patrick McKenna, will raise the ire of Brown's dedicated fans as it squelches possible complaints from the Catholic Church.

There are signs Howard's team tried to lighten the mood. Salvatore Totino photographs Rome as if its gorgeous architectural structures are separate characters. Hans Zimmer writes a playfully ominous score. And Hanks tries to inject humor whenever possible.

It can be a slippery slope, blending dry educational subject matters with bloody-good, guilt-free fun. Venture too far down that path, and you're left with the entertaining but hollow National Treasure series. Pull back too far on the reins, though, and you've got Howard's two adaptations. Of course, the Indiana Jones films successfully found that happy medium between history and heart-racing action. We can only imagine how high Brown's books would fly in Steven Spielberg's hands.

We hereby commit this movie to the earth...

Comments

Angels & Demons Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG-13, 2009

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