Three years on, I think it’s fair to say that nobody could deny that Ron Howard’s first movie from a Dan Brown best-seller, “The Da Vinci Code,” was both incredibly silly and cruelly turgid. His second one, “Angels & Demons,” is, from the narrative perspective, equally ridiculous, if not more so. There’s an attempt to make it seem more credible with good location shooting and imposing Roman sets, but that’s hardly enough when the action that occurs in them is risible. And trying to make it more plausible by adding what might be termed corroborative detail about operations in Vatican City fails when the scripters stumble—as when they have news reporters announce who’s been elected pope before his first appearance on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square (would never happen, guys). And they really explode the attempt when they say that the deceased pope—and do they really call him Celestine (as in Celestine V, who some believe was murdered by his successor Boniface VIII; the reference occurred in a gabble of subtitles near the close, so I’ll have to wait for the DVD to clarify)?—was both “progressive and beloved.” That’s a combination, considering these reactionary days in the papal court, that really takes things into the realm of science fiction.
But the movie is more sprightly than “Da Vinci,” running only ten minutes less but going at a more enjoyably loopy—some would even say frantic—clip. That makes it the more tolerable of the two. Of course, whether it’s enough to make it a winner is doubtful.
Tom Hanks returns, happily with a new, less absurd haircut, as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who might have threatened the foundations of Christian belief in the initial installment but returns this time around (it’s actual Brown’s first book featuring the character, but they’ve been inverted in the filming) to save the Catholic Church. A grisly murder at CERN, the Swiss-based European Center for Nuclear Research (which, among other things, dabbles in anti-matter) turns out to be the first step in what appears to be an insidious plot by the Illuminati, an anti-church group of rationalists, to take down the Vatican.
Of course it’s a labyrinthine underground scheme—what other sort would befit the site of the catacombs?—involving the kidnapping of four cardinals during a papal election conclave, and a determination to kill them off seriatim in a mad hourly countdown to setting off an antimatter bomb under St. Peter’s. Langdon and his new female sidekick Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a CERN investigator, have to rush about decoding a series of clues trying to save the redhats—the quartet of front-runners for the papal throne, as it happens—and keep that bomb from detonating and taking the whole of Vatican City with it.
Why are the Illuminati—an Enlightenment group that’s supposedly survived secretly for centuries despite the church’s efforts to suppress them—out to wipe out Catholicism? Because, as Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), the dead pope’s chamberlain overseeing the transfer of power to his successor, explains, the church has been an implacable foe of scientific thought throughout history (as Galileo’s unhappy fate testifies), and this will be the revenge of the nerds. And perhaps they have allies within the church. Could one be Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the chief elector, whose sidelong glances may betoken that he’s a mole? Or perhaps Commander Richter (Stellan Skargard) of the Swiss Guard? He’s a shifty sort, too. Or might it—gasp!—be the person you’d least suspect?
To find out, Langdon must work through clues found in a long-suppressed text by Galileo kept hidden away in the Vatican archives that will direct him and the police to the churches where the cardinals will be murdered and then to the spot where the bomb’s been planted. Though the characters around him keep making much of the professor’s deductive abilities, his decipherment of the puzzle never seems particularly astute—it mostly has to do with finding statues that literally point him in the direction of the next location.
But that’s just part of a larger narrative problem. The entire structure of the script, with Langdon and his cohorts rushing from place to place to avert disaster, always arriving just a bit too late, is entirely too much like an ecclesiastical version of that recent John Cena bomb, “12 Rounds.” And it’s equally ridiculous, because here as there, the success of the villain’s plan is predicated on so complicated a series of events—in which others do exactly what he predicts, and at exactly the right moments (until he’s finally undone, of course)—that it’s literally ludicrous. (The identity of the bad-guy, and the rationale behind his scheming, are equally hard to swallow.)
Still, for what it is (which isn’t much), “Angels & Demons” is well enough done. The physical production is impressive (especially since much of the shoot was done outside Rome, which makes the work of designer Allan Cameron, lead art director Giles Masters, and set designers Patte Strong-Lord and Jeff Markwith and their decorator Robert Gould all the more remarkable), and Salvatore Totino’s cinematography sets it off well. And Howard and his editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill keep things moving along spiffily. As to the acting, it’s workmanlike across the board. Everybody performs his assigned task well enough, but nobody, including Hanks, brings much to his role beyond the basics. They’re like chess pieces moved around on a cinematic board—though it’s a very well-designed board.
As far as preposterous pulp is concerned, “Angels & Demons” is livelier than “The Da Vinci Code.” But it’s still just preposterous pulp.