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Film on Fridays: Angels and Demons

May 15, 2009
Spring training for the St. Louis Cardinals

Spring training for the St. Louis Cardinals

The great thing about Dan Brown novels is you can line them up perfectly with your plane flight. You pick up a copy at the airport bookstore, get past the exposition at the gate, find out about the shocking true-life conspiracy on the runway, get through a couple of chase scenes before dinner, follow the hero through the shocking climax after a short nap (the Deadly Enforcer dies!), find out about the real conspiracy on the descent (it was the innocuous secondary character all along!), and wince at the awkwardly sexual dénouement before the seatbelt lights turn off (the female lead says something kind of dirty!). The whole experience is slightly more interesting than talking to the idiot next to you or quietly trying not to think about deep-vein thrombosis.

Ron Howard’s take on Angels and Demons rivals the original as a work of surpassing adequacy, a film so relentlessly tolerable it may inspire you to sit still and look forward, the summer thriller for people who have already seen all the interesting ones. Anybody looking to keep an annoying relative busy, encourage light petting on a second date, or stay out of the heat for two hours will find Angels and Demons the perfect movie not to pay attention to.

Run to the next clue, Tom Hanks!

Run to the next clue, Tom Hanks!

The story is that Harvard professor of “religious symbology” Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) has to use his expertise in his made-up field to investigate a plot by the Bavarian Illuminati to assassinate the four top candidates for Pope and wipe out the Vatican with an anti-matter bomb. The Illuminati plan involves “publicly executing” the four cardinals by quietly murdering them in four churches along a path prescribed by centuries-old Vatican records and Renaissance statues. In other words, their plan requires a random Harvard professor to be investigating them, and following their trail perfectly, to make any sense at all. A random Harvard professor whom they’re trying to murder. And it requires that nobody think of just posting a policeman to every church and waiting for someone to drag in a tied-up cardinal. Mind you, this is the state of the plot before any of the twists come out. It only gets more confusing from there.

Howard and writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman wisely excised all the even-stupider subplots from the book (like an Hashashin who likes to murder chicks while they blow him), but the film still feels crowded. There’s no time to invest anything in the story, with such a mess happening onscreen. People who are supposed to be major characters only get two or three lines each. Why should we care if they die, if we know so little about them? Only Tom Hanks gets to do anything interesting, and we know he survives to make The Da Vinci Code.

There is a female character in this movie. She doesn't do much.

There is a female character in this movie. She doesn't do much.

The good news is that Howard and Hanks overcome the nonsense of the premise with the solid, unpretentious craftsmanship that makes them famous. The action scenes are tightly paced and well-shot – like many movies, Angels and Demons makes much more sense whenever someone pulls out a gun. The settings are beautiful and eerie, with Howard’s camera gleefully taking in the colors of churches and crowds. Hanks handles his role with that wonderfully light touch of his that lets him take his work seriously while acknowledging the silliness of his characters.

None of this helps much when someone tries to make a whole movie about Tom Hanks looking things up in libraries and figuring out which way statues are pointing. There are only so many variations on that theme, and they run out after about fifteen minutes. Ron Howard should be ashamed about settling for Angels and Demons, and if you watch it, so should you.

Rating: 2 out of 4 dead Popes

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