By my math, Robert Langdon should have stayed home in Angels &
. Sure, by the end of the film the Vatican would have been down one
more cardinal, but otherwise everything else in the movie would have
happened exactly as it happens, with or without Langdon running around
solving ‘mysteries.’

I will say this for Angels & Demons: it is much easier to sit
through than the stultifying The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the pace of
this movie could almost be considered breakneck, especially for a movie
where someone is always stopping to deliver a mini-lecture on history,
art or symbology.

While Angels & Demons the book is the prequel to The Da Vinci Code
the book, the movie version is a sequel, and I think it works nicely as
such. The Vatican is no fan of Langdon post-Da Vinci, but they’re
forced to call in their formidable opponent for help when the Pope dies
and an ancient secret society kidnaps the four cardinals most likely to
be the next Pope and plants an anti-matter bomb somewhere in Vatican
City. See, the bad guys have left a series of clues that are tied into
ancient Church history and the works of the great masters, etc etc etc,
and only Langdon can possibly unravel them all, save the cardinals and
keep the bomb from blowing up the Vatican. Except that, as noted in the
first paragraph, he doesn’t do any of those things at all. But he does
go swimming, almost get lit on fire, almost asphyxiates, and gets
covered in lungblood – all over the course of about four hours. Like I
said, this shit is breakneck.

I wish I could like these films more. They’re the antithesis of the
modern blockbuster where the hero is the guy with the biggest gun or
who can take the most damage. Langdon is the smartest guy in the room,
and that’s an admirable trait for a mainstream hero. The guy is just
bursting with knowledge, and is ready to drop it at a moment’s notice.
He doesn’t deliver dialogue so much as hold forth on whatever obscure
(and, I suspect, factually suspect) topic is the basis of the next
clue. And he’s not the only smart guy; this time Langdon has a female
sidekick who happens to be a physicist at the Large Hadron Collider…
and who is so smart that she doesn’t just know particle physics, she’s
apparently also an expert in forensics and knows the post-mortem signs
that will prove the previous Pope was murdered! Now that’s one smart
broad; I’d be happy to settle for a deep understanding of gluons and
tachyons, but she’s taken her love of CSI to the next level as well.

Where The Da Vinci Code felt cheap, dark and cramped to me, Angels &
feels bigger, brighter and lusher. Apparently Ron Howard and company
weren’t able to film in the Vatican, but whatever they had to cheat
looks convincing to me, a guy who has never been to Italy. Ron Howard
graces us with many shots of soaring ancient architecture and gorgeous
statuary; as a travelogue I found Angels & Demons leaving me
itching for a trip to Rome. There are some obviously CGI moments – like
a huge crowd shot in St. Peter’s Square at the murdered Pope’s funeral
– but Howard uses that stuff sparingly, and makes use of other CGI
scene enhancements sparingly. Invisibility should be the goal of CGI,
and it’s mostly accomplished here.

Of course Howard doesn’t keep all of his CGI invisible. There are
scenes of particles colliding at CERN (the MacGuffin anti-matter
originates there. Timely!), and there’s even a ‘thrilling’ POV shot of smoke
going up the tiny chimney of the Sistine Chapel, announcing the
election of a new Pope. Howard feels a couple of years behind the
action directing curve (he’s apparently gotten up to the David Fincher
chapters now, after having exhausted the Paul Greengrass chapters in
The Da Vinci Code), but not gratingly so. His style here is more about
swooping and panning, trying to create some vibrancy around characters
who are standing about, discussing ancient history.

His style also extends to unintentional hilarity. Maybe it’s just me
but a scene featuring a 70 year old cardinal hanging by his wrists over
a roaring fire is funny all by itself and becomes side-splitting when
our hero’s attempt to rescue him serves only to plunge the old man
right into the flames. The film is filled with corkers – hammy, stupid
dialogue, people saying things that make no sense in an attempt to set
up future plot ‘twists’ (Ewan McGregor delivers a speech about how he
learned to fly helicopters that’s so out of place I almost thought the
other characters were going to ask him why the fuck he said that), and
action scenes that are silly in their repetitiveness (Langdon must
burst into a half dozen cobwebby churches and frantically search for
clues). There will likely be no scene in cinema this year funnier than
what happens to a character after a helicopter explodes high above the
Vatican (and I believe it’s different from the same funny scene in the
book); I was howling with laughter for a good five minutes.

Tom Hanks seems to be okay with starring in a movie where he’s the hero
by default only; Langdon still doesn’t have a lot to do in this
installment, but at least he’s placed in more direct danger this time
out. Also, a note for Hanks fans: his introduction in this movie is a
scene of him swimming, his two inch long nipples looking ready to cut
glass. We needed this scene. And Hanks, even when clothed, remains an
amiable guy with whom to spend two hours, especially now that he’s
gotten a decent hairdo.

The rest of the cast makes it through with their dignity intact, unlike
poor Paul Bettany in the first film. Ewan is the nigh-upon saintly
adopted son of the dead Pope, all dewy eyes and voice in the upper
register. Stellan Skarsgard is the shifty head of the Swiss Guard,
essentially playing the angry police chief in a cop movie (‘You’ve gone
too far this time, Langdon! Turn in your badge!’), while Munich‘s
Ayelet Zurer manages to have absolutely no chemistry with Tom Hanks in
any conceivable way. A scene where they’re pretending to be newlyweds
to scope out a potential murder site (yeah, this movie has sitcom
scenes like that) carries all of the sexual tension you feel between
actors in two completely different movies that happen to be playing at
adjacent theaters in the multiplex. Still, she has the ability to spit
out reams of expositional dialogue in a way that feels, if not natural,
at least not completely forced.

There’s a final act twist that’s so dumb as to boggle the mind; Angels
& Demons
‘ pace had kept me swept up in the movie, but this twist
comes after the ticking time bomb plot is over and as such really gets
to sink in to your brain. It’s one of those twists where the villain’s
plan is shockingly over-elaborate and yet completely worked, and is
predicated on every secondary character being 180 degrees different
than the movie had previously presented them. You know, the shady guy
is actually on the up and up and the sweet, nice, helpful guy is
actually Satan. And Stellan Skarsgard was a ghost all along.

I really hated The Da Vinci Code, but found myself mildly entertained
by Angels & Demons. This represents an improvement of almost 1
trillion percent; while only professionalism kept me in my seat for the
running time of The Da Vinci Code the absurdity (and nice locations) of
Angels & Demons kept me interested. At this rate of improvement the
third film, to be based on a yet unpublished book, could actually be
just simply good.

5.5 out of 10