Friday, May 15, 2009

Angels and Demons

Three years ago, Ron Howard's film adaptation of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" was met with a lot of controversy, but decidedly negative reviews. That film was a plodding snoozefest when compared to likeminded series like Indiana Jones, National Treasure, or even The Librarian. Thankfully Howard's follow-up, Angels & Demons, fares a bit better than its predecessor on pretty much every level.

After the events of The Da Vinci Code (the book occurs before Da Vinci, but the film is written as a sequel), professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is recruited by the Vatican to investigate a bomb threat from a secret society known as the Illuminati, who've also kidnapped four Vatican cardinals. Accompanying him is physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), recruited to recover a canister of antimatter stolen from the Large Hadron Collider. Together, and with the help of the Vatican police force, the two race across Rome to rescue the four cardinals and prevent the antimatter from being used to destroy Rome. Yes, you read that last part correctly.

The plot is twisted and convoluted in certain places, and it seems like writers Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp (not exactly a screenwriting pedigree) are desperate to up the tension and add suspense at every possible turn. Ticking clocks ("one cardinal will die every hour") are fine. It's what many action movies and thrillers are built around. But when you introduce the idea of rolling blackouts early on, there's no drama when our heroes' lives are endangered by it an hour later.

The scene I'm referring to turns out to be a red herring, and that's one of the film's key problems. There are far, far too many red herrings. If you haven't already figured out who's behind everything already, the red herrings force you to give up the chase and just turn your brain off. I'm willing to bet they're counting you to shut your brain off, because the film features a bizarre fourth act completely undoes all of the heroic drama that the climax could muster. The film seemed like it would actually go out on a high note, only to renege on it completely. It really doesn't work, and I'm not sure if the problem is with Koepp/Goldsman or Dan Brown.

But, for what it is, Angels & Demons does have its moments. The action may be on the mundane side, but the investigative side of the film is actually quite interesting. Whereas The Da Vinci Code felt like one long history lesson after another, Angels & Demons manages to balance the information without feeling like too much exposition. The film itself looks gorgeous, featuring great cinematography of some of Rome's most historic landmarks. Tom Hanks does well, but there's nothing groundbreaking about his performance. The real highlight of the film is Ewan McGregor, whose Carmelengo McKenna is perhaps the most interesting character in the film. He's young, seems poised for greatness, yet is all too conservative about his duty. Compared to the other clergy in the film, his is a character we want to learn more about, but are never afforded the chance.

If you're like me, and you enjoyed the premise of The Da Vinci Code more than the delivery of the film itself, you should enjoy Angels & Demons somewhat. It's not a great film by any means, but it is a fun diversion for an afternoon. It's decidedly average, but at least falls on the positive side of average.

3 stars (***) out of five.

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