The hardest thing about wrestling a Dan Brown novel into submission for movie purposes would have to be the endless wads of undigested explication that clog the author’s narratives. Brown and his reclusive wife/research assistant, Blythe, appear never to have encountered an arcane factoid they could resist cramming into one of his tales. It needn’t even be factual. (Their inaccuracies have been widely derided.) The result of this book-crafting strategy has been to give Brown’s wooden characters far too many things to explain and to instruct us in. This was already a problem for director Ron Howard in his film version of “The Da Vinci Code” three years ago. Now, taking a whack at [url id="http://www.mtv.com/movies/movie/330488/moviemain.jhtml"]“Angels & Demons”[/url] — the Brown book that preceded “Da Vinci,” but has been extensively revised into a sequel here — Howard has thrown up his hands and gone native. Impatient viewers may want to go home.
Tom Hanks is back, minus the mullet under which he wandered through “Da Vinci,” as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. And once again he’s teamed with a female sidekick — this time a “bio-entanglement physicist” (an actual career path, wonderfully enough) named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). Like Langdon, Vittoria is a stick figure whose sole purpose (no chemistry, please!) is to stir the vats of esoteric Brownian blather. She spends most of her time listening to Langdon say things like, “It’s the ancient Illuminati threat!” Occasionally, though, she gets to inject some big science into the proceedings herself, causing Langdon to make superfluous comments like, “You’re talking about the moment of creation!” There’s more to the movie, it must be said; but mainly it’s more of that.
Langdon has been summoned to Rome by the Vatican, which is having a terribly bad day. With the pope recently deceased, the Church has gathered its cardinals from around the world to elect from among themselves a successor. But the four frontrunners — the preferiti — have been kidnapped, and word has been received that one of these hostages will be killed at the top of each hour in a countdown to midnight, when the entire Vatican will be blown up by a single drop of antimatter stolen from CERN, the big physics research center near Geneva. (In his book, Brown offers an earnest explanation of antimatter which, unfortunately, has been dismissed as largely fantasy by CERN itself. So the antimatter we’re dealing with in the movie is essentially just some pretty nasty stuff, and let’s move on.)
The outlandish conspiracy has definite Bondian overtones — you half expect to see a cutaway of Auric Goldfinger cruising down the Via Veneto in his gold-laden Rolls, checking his watch and chuckling in homicidal anticipation. But no. Langdon knows what’s going on here — it’s the return of the science-loving Illuminati, sworn enemies of religious superstition for centuries, now making their most gleeful move. The only way to stop them is to uncover the Path of Illumination, a sort of obstacle course that wends its way through four Roman landmarks, at each of which a cardinal is to be sacrificed in some highly colorful way related to the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. As the hours tick down in onscreen updates, Langdon and Vittoria scurry from one of these sites to the next, littering the streets with thick clots of professorial discourse about art and architecture and suchlike, some of it true. Meanwhile, even more stuff is being explained back at the Vatican, where the late pope’s chamberlain (Ewan McGregor) is trying to hold down the fort until a new pontiff can be elected, and a harried head cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is having the devil’s own time getting that done, and the chief of Vatican security (Stellan Skarsgård) is proving mysteriously uninclined to evacuate the place.
Brown’s familiar hostility to the Roman Catholic Church is too reflexive to be of much concern to serious-minded believers, I’d think. However, it’s interesting to note that the filmmakers have been careful to change the ethnicity of the killer. In the book, he’s an Arab; here he’s a garden-variety European. This suggests an unspoken awareness that while there are some faiths you can push around with impunity, there are others you’d be wise not to annoy. Hollywood’s celebrated political boldness is clearly not unbounded.
The whole story is hokum, of course (especially the elaborate nonsense about the Illuminati). But then so are the plots of the Indiana Jones movies. Those pictures, though, have an exuberant pulp spirit — they’re fun. “Angels & Demons” is humorless, and way too talky. And it leaves Hanks, one of the most likable actors in movies, stranded, unable to use his skill and his warmth to turn the one-dimensional Langdon into an actual character — he’s too busy trying to keep us clued in to what’s going on to do much more than breathlessly hoof it from one picturesque tourist site to the next.
Some of the cardinals are dispatched in arresting ways (human barbeque is something we don’t get nearly enough of anymore); a lethal confrontation between Langdon and the shadowy killer at a Bernini fountain is rousingly (if implausibly) constructed; and the shot in which we see rats chewing off somebody’s face is pretty memorable, too. If only there were room for more such cinematic inventions — for more real action, more high spirits. If only, in short, the movie would shut up.
Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “The Brothers Bloom,” also new in theaters this week.
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