Back in 2006 Ron Howard, hot off the success of 2005's Cinderella Man, teamed with actor extraordinaire Tom Hanks to tackle a novel whose popularity was off the charts. It was Dan Brown's controversial thriller The Da Vinci Code. The film features Hanks as Dr. Robert Langdon, a symbologist, who becomes embroiled in a thriller that is ultimately a chase for the Holy Grail and explores the possibility that Jesus had a love life and was involved with Mary Magdalene. The tale is utterly preposterous, but the pieces of fact that Brown folded into his fiction helped make the story a moderately interesting one. I felt the film failed to live up to its pre-release hype (which seemed to rile up the Catholic community), although I would likely enjoy it a bit more now that it has been separated from the hype.
In any case, the formidable duo have returned to the Dan Brown catalog. Angels & Demons was selected, another thriller centering on Robert Langdon and the Catholic Church. This time around, it does not appear that the marketing team has taken the same route as they did for Da Vinci. Yes, this is a big release, but it still seems to be sneaking into theaters, wedged in between Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation. Now that it is here, does it stand up to its predecessor? Should the hype machine have gone full bore in promoting it? Yes to the first and no to the second.
Angels & Demons is not a perfect film, but it is definitely more enjoyable upon first viewing than The Da Vinci Code was. Sure, I was a bit skeptical going in, but this lack of expectation did nothing but help, as I was willing to go along with whatever the film had to offer. As for the promotion, this is not your traditional blockbuster. This is a thriller that does not really target teens and twenty-somethings the way a film like Wolverine does; it casts a wider net and brings in a larger number of older film goers. The audience will find the film. It will not open as large as the first, but it will likely show some good endurance.
The movie begins with the death of the Pope and the gathering of the College of Cardinals to select the next Pontiff. However, before this happens, four of the most revered Cardinals are kidnapped and messages left in their place. This leads the Church to turn to Langdon, a man with the symbology knowledge that could help them track down those responsible. It turns out to by the return of the Illuminati, a scientific sect following Galileo that was hunted and persecuted by the Church. They vowed revenge, and this appears to be the time that they have chosen to strike.
Along with the kidnapping, we have a canister containing recently harvested antimatter, a powerful and explosive substance that could destroy the Vatican and a chunk of Rome in one fell swoop. A touchy situation has gotten decidedly hairier. Can Langdon find the kidnapped Cardinals and save the Vatican?
The tale plays out in a rather straightforward manner, and reminiscent of the Indiana Jones series. It is sort of like the Jones series has split into two beasts, one being the family-friendly pseudo-historical National Treasure films, the other being the pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-historical Langdon films.
One of the elements that fails this film, particularly early on, is the screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman. They had the challenge of packing a veritable ton of exposition into a relatively short period. They tried, but the end result is a script that is overly talky, ultimately dragging down the film's pace. Seriously, whenever Langdon got going I began to zone out a little. I am not against talky films, but this one made Hanks look like he just wanted to hear hims own voice.
The film does pick up as we get into the later stages. The plot clicks along as our hero deduces the clues that no one else can see. Tom Hanks is not really in top form, but he looks more comfortable than he did in The Da Vinci Code. He is joined by Ewan McGregor, playing Father Patrick McKenna, the deceased Pope's aid. He does a fine job bringing depth to the role of the priest.
Overall, I would be lying if I did not say I was entertained, particularly in the second half. Once you get through the talking, the story is quite interesting. There is a blending of fact and fiction that could spur on the right individual to look into the truth behind the fiction. Besides, the production values are excellent. While the direction may not stand out, the cinematography does — there is always something interesting to look at.
An interesting note is that the Church has deemed this movie "harmless entertainment" and "no danger to the Church." This comes in stark contrast to the reaction they had to the last film, where churches (including my own) made pamphlets available explaining how wrong the movie was as Church officials spoke out against it. I guess without the Hollywood hype machine behind it, there was no need for such an explosive reaction. Also, I am surprised that the most basic argument was never used: "It is a fictional novel!"
Bottom line. This is not a great movie, but it is one that will hold your attention. The performances are good, the look is slick, and it is, above all else, harmless. I'm kidding, it never posed a threat aside from attempting to tell a thrilling story with a few real world elements tossed in.